It’s rare that I make dire predictions, but I’m going to make one. In a decade or so, we can see if I’m right.
Public libraries are doomed.
Okay, that was maybe more dire than I really meant.
How about, public libraries as places to get books or videos or music are doomed?
There, less dire. My proof? The great thing about a dire prediction, as any seer can tell you, is that we don’t need any proof, but Amazon trying to create a “Netflix for books” is persuasive.
Amazon is trying to create an ebook rental service akin to Netflix’s rental service for video (on disc or streaming makes no difference). If they can pull it off and make it as affordable as Amazon Prime, which already competes with Netflix Instant for some video titles, a lot of the people who still use public libraries for reading purposes will likely stop.
That’s crazy, you say! Library books are free! Why would anyone PAY for something they can get for free?
I think we all know the answer to that one, and anyone who has ever compared getting an ebook from Amazon compared to getting one from a public library will know the former is much easier.
Other librarians might also protest that Kindle books are bogged down with DRM, that they don’t play well with other ebook readers, or some similar claim. Yep. So what?
The current generation of Kindle is a fine ebook reader, and the wi-fi model with ads is now only $114. Plus the books can be read on smartphones and other computers.
At that price, even if someone was a Nook diehard (if there are such), buying a Kindle just for the rental books could still be worthwhile.
The trick might be the pricing. A $10/month, one-book-at-a-time plan would be very attractive, maybe with higher priced plans for 2-3 books at a time a la Netflix.
Most of the people who use public libraries primarily for reading could probably afford a Kindle and ten bucks a month. Why on earth would they still keep going to libraries?
There’s another obvious objection, which is that many books are not available in a digital format, and of those that are, the ones that are now currently very expensive – e.g., most academic titles – probably won’t be available under a low price plan, just like they aren’t available now for $9.99.
Only academics and students would care about this, and they don’t rely on public libraries anyway.
Cheap streaming video and music is already drawing people from public libraries, and cheap streaming books will finish them off as purveyors of “information.”
There’s still a lot libraries can do. Internet cafes, tech training centers, community centers, but in twenty or thirty years the idea of a public library as a place to get books, music, or movies will seem quaint. Public libraries as we have known them for decades will be gone forever.
A kind reader emailed asking for my thoughts on this, and gave a price breakdown that put Internet, video, ebooks at only slightly more than most cities spend per capita for their libraries.
What happens when the cost in [Name of City] is more than the companies? How long before libraries can’t compete? When do we admit defeat?
I suspect the time to admit defeat is sooner than we think. If Amazon can pull it off, then between Amazon, Netflix, and Spotify, most people won’t need libraries for anything anymore.
Amazon may drive libraries out of business the way it did a lot of bookstores, and the only ones likely to be disappointed are the librarians. Everyone else will be too busy reading whatever book they want, watching whatever movie or TV show they want, and listening to any music they want, all for about $30/month.
With services at that price, buying books for people to read for free would be about as attractive to most cities as supplying water to their houses for free.