What Does the Future Hold for Libraries?

Ransom Riggs

With last weekend's release of the iPad, more pundits than ever are proclaiming the book an endangered species. Bookstores are closing left and right. It only follows that libraries would be in trouble, too. But are they? In my neighborhood, Santa Monica, California, the city's actually in the process of spending millions to build a new one.

Until last week, I hadn't been to a library in years. I used to go all the time -- I don't know what happened. Slowly, over the course of years, I was lulled into the routine of buying books instead of borrowing them; every time I needed one, I'd hop on Amazon or stop by a Barnes and Noble. Going to the library last week was a revelation -- a whole storehouse of books that I could have for free! And yet, I'm not the only one who's forgotten about the virtues of the library. The only other people I saw there were either homeless, or teenagers taking advantage of the net-enabled computers to chat with their friends and play around on Facebook.

A great Salon article from this month talks about the gleaming new library in Cambridge, Mass --

When I visited the new building recently, I saw people; I saw open shelves and attractively displayed books. But few people were reading those books, and I saw way too much unused space, the kind of emptiness beloved by architects. From the third floor, I stared down at a slim man in a chair. He had a laptop on his knees; ear-buds dangled against his black-sweatered chest. Behind him sat more glowing screens on Ikea-like desks. The laptop users perched on the second floor in a glassed-in bay. I was up in the children's room -- no longer a room but a vast acreage at the top of the building -- sitting in a chair that looked as if it was hewn from an exotic log. When the building first opened last fall, the glowing review in the Boston Globe noted that library director Susan Flannery "wanted to create a 'hybrid' that would mix the qualities of a library and a retail bookstore." A retail bookstore? With all its emphasis on market share? I feel the cold hand of commerce squeezing my lefty heart. Yet the movement of so much text into cyberspace doesn't necessarily amount to empty space -- and that's the irony. Like the laptop users upstairs, I now find most of the rich clutter I love online rather than in a building like this.

I would argue that libraries which lack vast budgets are now forced to choose between buying computers and buying books. And while I think it's important that computers and internet access are made available to the public -- especially to those who can't afford them on their own -- but I'll always choose books over computers, because computers become obsolete, and books do not. A well-bound hardback can last a hundred years or more. How long will a computer last?

I'd love to hear what our readers think. When's the last time you went to the library? And when you were there, what did you do -- check out a book, use a computer, or both?