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A Country Without Libraries (nybooks.com)
56 points by wyclif on May 19, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 31 comments

I think many people underestimate the value of free books, particularly to children.

When I was young I read 1 or 2 books a week, every week, for about 4 years. My parents couldn't have afforded that many books. I could I suppose have dug around in whatever some charity shop had to offer, but I don't think I would have got such a rounded reading education.

E-book readers will (I hope) prove to be a revolution in that point.

My country gave one laptop to every schoolchild, but I wish they'd consider giving out e-book readers instead (or in addition to).

With the Gutenberg project and other resources, an enterprising child with the reading bug should have plenty to chew on :) . OTOH, as a child I read stuff due to being book-deprived which I probably wouldn't have read if I had had access to other options (encyclopaedias from cover to cover, astronomy and physics books, etc..)

When I was a kid, my local town had a 'leisure library'. It was a small-ish facility (10m x 10m) filled with teenage-books, videos, a few computers (back in 1994!) and consoles. The librarian operated a shop where you could buy coke, pepsi, juice and snacks and there was a back-room filled with about 50 different board games, with a table that you could book to play on. There was even an alcove with a projector and a video-player and a couple of sofas. The librarian was a trained social worker who could offer all sorts of advice to teenagers who had no other adult to ask.

I met a lot of new friends there, discovered a whole bunch of books and authors, learned a lot about games and computers and had a great time. The local authority closed it down after 5 years because it was unprofitable and turned it into office space.

There's no way that the internet has the same possibility of offering a social/learning/entertainment centre. This community-centre/lending-centre/advice-centre model is the perfect thing for libraries to transition towards - but it requires a lot of creativity from local authorities.

I fail to understand why public services get shut down because they're 'not profitable'. I don't want my government to be 'profitable', I want it to provide services for the greater good of 'the people', of which I am occasionally a member.

Police and fire departments don't get shut down because their EPS was well below guidance, and schools aren't closed because they don't have a clear revenue picture for the next quarter. Congress has been going for over two hundred years and they've never once been in the black.

Yet libraries, parks, and public transit should all be 'profitable'? I'm confused.

This is exactly the kind of library that WILL endure after this round's budget threats (and there have always been threats). The role of the librarian drastically changes as the population becomes much more information literate, but the role of the library as a community center in American life won't be shaken.

I'm not sure that I'm going to weep when the last library closes.

Let's put aside, just for a moment, the usefulness of libraries for people, who don't otherwise have the means, to get on the internet. Does a library really provide a service that the Internet can't better fulfill? I believe that the internet is a better medium to distribute music, newspapers and magazines, either commercially or as a social service. Why should books be any different?

I truly believe that the death of libraries can be the result of positive things. The internet can make more books more easily available to more people. It can also do so more cheaply. We aren't there yet - but I don't see it being a technical limitation at this point. It's unfortunate that people will lose their jobs, but they aren't the first, nor the last, victims of technological advancement.

Now, you still need to solve the problem of giving people access to the internet. But surely, if we focus on solving this one problem, we can do so in a more cost effective, and potentially better, way. If the main appeal of libraries is that they have free access to the Internet, then I'm not sure that's a strong argument in favor of libraries (as we know them).

You're missing the entire point of what a library is — it isn't a collection of books or computer terminals, but an educational community center. A good reference liberian can help someone out of work to find a job, they can help a business person do research or help someone navigate a government bureaucracy. For kids libraries are really education centers — and they also double as a meeting place for seniors. Libraries can house local history, be a showcase for local artists and show films. Libraries are meeting places for local organizations that focus on everything from a love of flowers to a chamber of commerce. Just like a museum or a school isn't replaced by technology — a library isn't replaced by technology.

I'd go further and say that libraries are one of society's more significant institutions and a powerful symbol that learning is a prized asset in its members. While the internet is more efficient and offers a greater range of materials I think that we are still in the early days of a transition to on-line learning and losing libraries at this moment risks letting the perceived value of education diminish in the eyes of the people who probably most need it.

Call them "local community centres" or "senior meeting places" in that case.

You're missing the point — that's like calling a your smart phone an mp3 player. Librarians are really educators who provide a resource for the community. So it's a community center with a brain. And sadly the libraries that are getting closed are in the communities that really need them the most.

I'm not saying libraries are useless. I'm saying that much of their use is better served by the internet. Find a job? Do research? Navigate government documents? Even with respect to education we're seeing innovation from things like the Khan Academy.

The internet won't/can't replace everything a library does. Like providing a physical space, or services for elderly (which are often not connected).

That's my point, that perhaps they should focus on the areas where they truly serve a distinct (and valuable) service. Not only might they be more successful by focusing on a narrow set of services, but they might become more affordable to run.

Find a job? Do research? Navigate government documents? Even with respect to education we're seeing innovation from things like the Khan Academy.

If you expect the average citizen to do all those things online it may be reasonable, maybe for a generation, to replace at least some of the gone libraries by Internet literacy centers.

This is the key point. Many, many people do not have the informational literacy to even begin to do research work on their own in any medium, let alone on the Internet.

Furthermore, many documents and resources aren't digitized and aren't on any kind of networked computer or database, so how exactly is someone supposed to access these materials and in a timely fashion? Librarians specialize in knowing how to find and navigate those materials and sources.

The internet can make more books more easily available to more people. It can also do so more cheaply.

Which is why you can, you know, get on the internet at the libarary.

There are relatively few technical limitations for access to books via the Internet. The bigger problem is a business/copyright law issue. The library model of lending a physical book has a firm, 200+ year tradition in the US. Until there is something similar for e-books, I would be hesitant to say that the Internet is your savior.

Music, newspapers, and magazines ? If that's what you think libraries are for, then yes they should die. Newspapers and magazines are dying, but many books never get old. (Or are fun to read anyway)

Books are quite different from movies and other forms of media. They require concentration and imagination to digest. Think about it as an exercise, if nothing else.

I don't have problems with the latter. When it comes to concentration - I'm easily distracted. For this reason most movies, particularly action flicks, bore me (exception: thrillers). But when I'm reading a book, I'm by definition concentrated on it.

While I read a lot of fiction, books as a form are just better at providing exhaustive information on a given topic. There are sites like Project Gutenberg, but until a decent and inexpensive eReader is available, they are no substitute.

Finally, libraries are a place where you can meet interesting people, often introverts like me. In my country 12% read more than 7 books a year. If I meet someone in a library, it's most likely an unusual person.

My first impulse was to lash back and defend libraries because of my incurable fondness for them and for paper books. But on some reflection I realise that this is like a spoken language going extinct - theres not much that can be done except translate the wisdom into the current lingua franca. So it might be nice to examine the things that libraries great and try to replicate them in future digital offerings. My list includes - universal access, a release valve from copyright where the people can access copyrighted works, availability of a friendly guide, different repositories that are curated for specialised subjects (like a tech library, arts library etc), good discoverability of books you dont know about, books classified by subject. Lastly libraries seem to be a great example of how infringement does not destroy industries so people building digital systems might do well to create some gaps through which knowledge can flow freely.

I grew up in a small town, and were it not for the library may have gone insane. Upon saving up enough for a computer of mine own and an internet connection I visited less, but still treasured the place.

So I sympathize, but believe that we can make libraries unnecessary.

Subsidized or free municipal internet connectivity, already seen in some communities, coupled with a greater commitment to making worthwhile material available online, has the potential to do more good.

Instead of 215,000 copies of a reference book spread throughout the nations libraries, buyout the rights to it or work out an arrangement to make it available online.

Instead of cutting services like data.gov, expand upon them.

As to community connectedness and educating our children, focus on making our schools better.

Libraries are, and have been a grand institution. But times change, and there are better ways.

I'm sad even if Internet replaces some aspects of a library. I'm still wondering what replaces the lending process on Internet? Some years ago, I was very happy to go to a library looking for a specific book and finding a bookshelf containing the related books on a same topic. I'm leaving the library with no one but four books on the topic I was looking for. That was just for the price of the yearly subscription.

On Internet, you cannot go to an official library and have access to all the books and download what you want for a yearly subscription of 5-7 EUR (that was the price in the 80-90 nineties in Europe). The only similar service is with the "Library Genesis" but it's not really considered to be an official library... I'm sad because it excludes some future innovator to access knowledge easy and cheaply.

The internet is the biggest library and the biggest junkyard. I like it that way. It has its charms.

There's another thing to like about libraries: information is nicely organized, consistently of rather high quality (no lolcats). Librarians are educated people, you go to an university (for example) to become one. When you go to a library, you know you won't find much crap. It's the human-organized information at its finest.

British libraries face a similar situation, but I don't expect libraries to disappear altogether and they will probably enjoy a new phase of usage. As another commenter notes, libraries are really community education centers and there's currently a crisis in higher education, which is becoming increasingly unaffordable for a large number of people whilst at the same time the economy still demands well educated "knowledge workers". Probably not all of this gap in education provision will be able to be filled by the internet. So there is a need for something lower cost than current university courses, which doesn't put students into unrealistic amounts of debt but which delivers a comparable level of education and a qualification that carries some confidence.

It is immensely disheartening. It seems stupidly mean and meanly stupid.

The claim that this is a matter of mere budget pressure rather than budget priorities smacks of a vicious and improbable lie.

States which can still afford (at the minimum) massive prison systems allow this to happen.

Presumably when they close down the libraries the librarians don't turn to a life of crime (though they may already be torrenting ebooks as if people should be able to read for free).

But they do shut the doors on patrons who might.

My town just passed a tax-increase to keep our library from cutting another day from its schedule. It passed by a huge margin (although the senior center and pool were lumped in so it's not clear exactly what was the driver.) Yay for Corvallis.

Without libraries, there is also the loss of public librarians, who have traditionally been strong advocates for freedoms related to access to materials, etc. I guess online their role is replaced by the EFF or similar.

If all tax dollars were collected by the municipalities and then a portion of that passed up to state and federal budgets (instead of the municipalities getting very little directly and needing to request money back from state and federal budgets) would the same situation have emerged?

Downtown San Diego is currently building a near $200M new central library.


The plans were created about 5-6 years back and the project was put put on hold for 3 years. Living across the street from the site, pretty much everyone in my neighborhood thought it was going to be scrapped. But some big donors stepped in to help close the funding shortfall.

If libraries aren't just glorified book lending centres, he should stop complaining and suggest some ways to make them relevant again.

Agreed. If all the libraries closed, I would be sad, but not because I couldn't borrow books anymore. (Well, I'd probably be sad my kids would never be able to borrow books like I did as a kid, which was great)

It would be sad because they are (or used to be) a hub of knowledge and information, and that is why they are valuable.

In my ideal world a library would be a combination of a hackerspace, techshop, cafe, with areas to write/research and generally be inspired.

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