A few days back, some news hit the Internet with all the power and ferocity of a snowflake striking the ground. Some people saw it as the inevitible conclusion to a long, and sometimes rocky, history. Others dismissed it with a “Psh… should’ve happened years ago.” Yet, for the most part, no one seemed to care.
Me, I care, but not for the reasons that you may expect.
The news was about CDs and how they’re probably going away soon. Now, as a musician and music fan, this disturbed me only a little. See, one of the biggest things I miss about the days of vinyl isn’t the warm sound you get from a record, though that’s something I miss quite a bit. You know what’s awesome about records? They’re huge. And you know what a huge record means? It means a huge record sleeve. And what do you put on a huge record sleeve?
You put this on it.
That’s not only beautiful, that’s iconic. The Beatles had this one album, you may have heard of it, where the entire cover was white… and yet that cover became one of the most well known covers in music history. We’re going to lose some of the awesome cover art we’ve grown to love once we no longer buy physical CDs, and I think that’s a little sad.
But that’s not what bothers me.
Libraries are, for the most part, defined by physicality. We talk of our branch, our collection, our books and DVDs, our CDs, our front desks, and our librarians. What do all of those things have in common? Simple, they’re real. You can touch them. Stroke them. You can see them. They’re there. If I ask you to pass me that CD, you could do it – provided there’s a CD in the immediate vicinity and we have the required proximity.
Now, pass me that MP3 file. Oh, excuse me, could you hand me that streaming video please? Hey, mac… toss me that eBook I wanna read the book jacket.
Now you’re looking at me kind of strangely, aren’t you? You can hand someone an MP3 file. You can’t read the book jacket of an eBook. You can’t hold a streaming video.
Yet all of us pretty well accept that this is where things are going. I’m not being hypocritical here either. I watch a lot of NetFlix, I read eBooks, and I listen to MP3 music almost every waking moment. Heck, I don’t even have to buy the MP3 music thanks to services like Spotify or Pandora. And for the most part I don’t want to buy things like books, and CDs, and movies if I don’t have to. I’ve already got enough clutter in my house.
But what about libraries? We live and die on physicality, the very tangible nature of things. I check out DVDs, not streaming movies. I help a patron find stacks of CDs, not MP3s. Indeed, if I do help a patron find MP3s, there’s a fairly decent chance I’m committing some kind of crime.
Now CDs are going away, and soon enough they’ll be gone. I can’t help but think that it won’t be all that long before DVDs join them. For public libraries, losing CDs means that, not only do we lose our music collection and our ability to restock and refresh it, we lose our audiobook collections as well. Those kids books with the CDs? Gone. How about The Short and Dirty Guide to Learning Short and Dirty Words in Japanese? Yeah, it’ll be gone too because it’s a kit that includes four or five CDs of Nippon profanity, kusoyaro.
What happens when we lose our movie collections because the industry finally gives up on DVDs? eBooks exploded over the last year, what happens when more people want eBooks rather than regular books? Some folks say this won’t happen and all I can do is scratch my head and ask “Why can’t it happen? Look around, it already is.” Penguin just reported a banner year for eBooks sales and the year isn’t even over.
Raise your hand if you own and regularly use a portable CD player. Sure you don’t. You use an iPhone or an iPod or an Android or some other device that probably does a hell of a lot more than play music. Heck my phone works really hard at eliminating the aforementioned collections because I can use it to read, listen, and watch.
Many cities have to bid out services. What happens when some political schmuck gets the awesome, out-of-the-box-thinking idea of “instead of giving all that money to the library to buy movies and books, let’s see what Amazon.com’s bid is for providing the city with certain kinds of content.”? Oh, and before someone chimes in here with “But we provide services to people who can’t afford eReaders, Internet, and NetFlix!” all I can say is sure we do.
We also provide comfy sleeping areas and improvised bathing facilities for semi-crazy homeless people. Do you think the politicians care much about that? (Hold your emails. I know that not all homeless people are crazy, especially in this economy. Let’s face it, I worked in a public library a block and a half from the county jail. I know what kind of people can frequent certain public libraries.)
Here’s some hard reality. The people who can afford things like Kindles, NetFlix, an who are purchasing eBooks and buying music from the Internet – they’re not as likely to come to the library for any of our stuff. However, since they do have money, they’re more likely to donate to political campaigns and they’re far more likely to vote than a poor person who can’t afford any of that stuff, let alone campaign donations. It’s getting even harder thanks to the GOP and their efforts to make jolly damn sure that poor people won’t vote. Couple that with a conservative bent to cut services, and you have yourself a recipe for library obsolescence in as little as ten years.
And for all of those who don’t think anything like this could ever possibly happen – today, reality showed up to give libraries another boot in the ass.
So the question is… what do we do?