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The Retro Library

After all the relatively bad news regarding ebooks and libraries, I found some hope for public libraries in this article: As The Age Of The Physical Book Retreats, The Cult Of The Physical Book Advances.

It might be the case, as I’ve predicted, that with the rise of digital media, publishers of the most popular media that has driven public library circulation from time immemorial will gradually stop providing access to their wares. The recent support of major publishers for SOPA shows they’ll go to ridiculous lengths to protect their ebooks from “piracy.”

I feel sorry for them more than blame them. Publishers are suffering as the world realizes it doesn’t really need them anymore, and they’re doing all they can to take libraries and the Internet down with them. Fear and panic are never pretty, even if they’re understandable.

But all might not be lost. Printed books aren’t going away, even if the most popular of them won’t be available for lending or purchasing, just licensing from Amazon and maybe a couple of other places. There will still be printed books and people who read them, and along with specialty bookstores libraries will be a place to find those books.

As the new book world order comes to pass, libraries can make themselves more attractive by obsessing less about the popular. Let’s face it,  the blather about libraries being the cornerstone of democracy and all that is a little hard to take when one of the biggest challenges is making bestselling novels available to library patrons. If the bestsellers aren’t freely available, democracy – such as it is –  will survive, or at least the absence of free bestsellers won’t be the cause of its demise.

Instead, libraries can try to be cool in some way, something they’ve never really been. They’ve been stuffy, useful, and useless, and some of their workers have tried to be “hip,” but libraries have never really been cool.

As the digital era passes libraries by, it’s time to celebrate the traditional qualities of libraries: print books, quiet corners, dusty shelves. Instead of updating libraries with renovations, libraries should be backdated.

Make the library look antique. People like antiques, probably more than they do libraries. They also like the traditional physical culture of writing and reading. I write my journal in a leatherbound notebook with a fountain pen, and I can’t be the only one. So libraries should also start selling leatherbound journals and fountain pens.

Instead of the ugly metal shelves in most libraries, put in wooden shelves. Instead of new computers, put in some steamtop computers. Instead of the garish colors so many books come in, rebind them all in leather, or at least provide leather covers for them.

Paper, wood, leather, and brass, that’s what the library of the future needs more of.

Instead of wasting money on the bestsellers of today, which are sure to be the moldy detritus of tomorrow, libraries should invest more in timeless and aesthetically pleasing environments that will make people want to visit. People want beautiful libraries, and instead they often get bland libraries with ugly computers, steel shelving, and bad lighting.

Even if there aren’t a lot of bestsellers available, people will want to visit beautiful public spaces with steampunk computers and leatherbound books on mahogany shelves.

The retro look is in, and there’s nothing more retro than libraries. Libraries should take advantage of that.

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Comments

  1. Thank you so much for the link to the Forbes article. I absolutely loved it. I think the “antiquing” of libraries is a great idea although I don’t necessarily agree that you can’t update libraries to incorporate necessary access to technology while also maintaining the coolness of bringing patrons back to a bygone era. I think another necessary part of this will be encouraging the sharing of ideas and creative works that we all associate with 1920′s Paris. It will be crucial to foster a sense of community and sharing. Great post; thanks for sharing.

  2. meh says:

    Lord help the poor librarians who have to serve as unwitting babysitters at those libraries…

  3. I Like Books says:

    I think a case could be made that libraries should focus on Important Knowledge. Maybe not as many people will use it if they can’t get their videos and best-sellers. But if you want to understand financial meltdowns, conflicts with Arabs, or environmental issues, where are you going to go? Blogs? Talk radio? Wikipedia? There has to be some place where the citizenry can find non-fiction that is well-researched and IN-DEPTH. It’s important that citizens have some kind of understanding of issues like those, and it would be perverse to make everyone pay to get it. At $30 per book, how valuable would it be to you to understand current events?

    I definitely like the book-centered library, with wood and brass and hanging plants. Or, at the local university, the marble stairs, dark stacks with carols near iron-work windows, and narrow marble steps worn down from millions of sandy feet (until they renovated).

    The fashion today seems to be to hide the fact that they have books. A library near me with award-winning architecture has the children’s section, computers, CDs, DVDs… keep walking… past the magazines and the reference section, and finally the books. My mother, who doesn’t walk as well as she used to, has complained about how far it is to the books. The main branch was renovated, and now you have to go upstairs for the books.

    • You got it, ILB.

      Public libraries were founded and thrived during the earlier 20th century because they provided access to things people could not obtain as individuals. This was the value proposition: we pool our money to get things of value we could not get on our own. We entrusted libraries to act on our behalf to discern what was of high value. Back then, this meant things like assistance from a literate person; various maps, globes, reference books of all sorts, etc; encyclopedias; newspapers from distant places and yes, popular books and magazines. The strategic flaw in libraries’ current strategy to “remain relevant” is that they have largely abandoned this value proposition and instead focus on the common & ubiquitous. This is true of their services, their buildings, etc.

      The library value proposition still holds. It may even be more resonant today now that commercial interests have transformed our national landscape into a large strip mall with the same stores & restaurants from northern Maine to southern California. Our public libraries can be an oasis amidst this homogeneity; a place that reflects values & culture that affirms our roles as citizens & community members versus merely as consumers.

    • Randal Powell says:

      Jean, all of the construction of the last decade or more is absolutely dreadful – so much wealth squandered on dull, poorly-designed McMansions and strip malls. Good architects are still around, but no one wants to pay them for their services. Instead of the Bald Eagle, I think our national mascot should be the Neon Yellow Hummer.

  4. it will be awesome when publishers withhold the “bestsellers” from libraries. then we can spend our money on small press releases and promote them as better than the bestsellers. there have been so many times when I’ve wanted something from, say, cemetarydance for $100 that we wouldn’t dare buy.. but if we have all that bestseller money, then maybe I can. but you won’t be able to borrow it… because it was $100. it’s staying in the display case away from your greasy hands.

  5. I investigated a library regarding a porn matter. I found no problem. But I did find an absolutely beautiful library and beautiful surrounds, like the Hudson Rover and the Tappan Zee Bridge, so beautiful I had to take pictures of it and post it online. Check this out:

    “Nyack Public Library Porn That Would Make Andrew Carnegie Proud”

    http://safelibraries.blogspot.com/2011/08/nyack-public-library-porn-that-would.html

    • MG says:

      And I’m sure we are all feeling secure that you didn’t find a problem.

    • Joneser says:

      Because with his extensive library experience (i.e. actually working in one) he would definitely know.

    • MG, Joneser,

      A librarian in that library was essentially forced out of her job and it may have been due to something related to porn in the library and her opposition to it. My recollection is not so clear now. I went to the library to investigate for myself to see if I could learn facts to assist the librarian get her job back one way or another.

      You two mock me for doing so. Did you two travel a really long distance to try to help a librarian? Did you even notice there may have been a problem in the first place? Instead of lashing out as you have, did you first find out the facts before making your ad hominem arguments about me?

      To a bigger issue, why does SafeLibraries have to go investigate matters where librarians are in trouble? Why doesn’t the ALA? Indeed, when librarians are in trouble, say Scott Savage for simply recommending a balance of books for Ohio State University freshmen, the ALA might even stick the knife in further and twist. Ones who are being sexually harassed on the job and filing EEOC and civil complaints, those the ALA never, ever helps, not once. Indeed they may be suffering as a direct result of ALA anything-goes policy being implemented locally.

      Now I go to Nyack to try to help a librarian by seeing the facts for myself, and you two make nasty comments with your special version of censorship by ridicule. It’s disgraceful.

      And the ALA not helping librarians in trouble or making it worse for them, that’s disgraceful.

      I, on the other hand, will continue to do what I can to try to seek justice for librarians, particularly the ones the ALA ignores or attacks. So you’ll have lots more chances for ad hominem argument.

      Any librarians reading this who may need my help, particularly those being ignored by their anything-goes management, please feel free to contact me. And I’m a volunteer librarian, by the way.

    • Way Barra says:

      Thanks for the offer, Mr. Kleinman. When my job is on the line I’ll be sure to put the words “library porn” somewhere on my webpage, so that you can rush in and save the day with sort-of-relevant links to your blog.

    • Joneser says:

      “Volunteer librarian”. Yeah. That makes a mockery of my education, my profession, and my livelihood. So please don’t talk to me about the struggle to save librarian jobs. You’ve never had to get one.

      Helicoptering in while in a state of high dudgeon doesn’t help your cause, whatever it is. When you have gone through what I’ve gone through in this profession, and done what I had to do to get to where I am now, then I’ll listen to you.

  6. I love this post.

    I love that you’re emphasizing the experience of the Library, rather than what is available in the Library.

    I sometimes feel we worry too much about what new technology we have and forget that people come to the library with expectations that we need to meet – classes being taught, engaging the community, etc. I’d love to see more libraries focus on providing great experiences, be it a gaming day, history day (a recent event held in a New Jersey library regarding cassette culture comes to mind) or anything.

    • Joneser says:

      There is always NEW technology. Remember avatars and Second Life (and library ads requiring that a teen librarian have an avatar)? SO 2009!!

      So what about what is timeless and permanent?

  7. anonymous says:

    Lo in lyke wyse of bokys I haue store
    But fewe I rede, and fewer understande
    I folowe nat theyr doctryne nor theyr lore
    It is ynoughe to bere a boke in hande
    It were to moche to be it suche a bande
    For to be bounde to loke within the boke
    I am content on the fayre couerynge to loke
    Sebastian Brant, Narrenshiff, The Book Fool, 1494

  8. Alex Segu says:

    Just read your article which I found fascinating, just one problem with it, how can publishers prevent piracy in a virtual environment with so many tools provided to get around these virtual gates? That not realistic to me. Another point raised in your comment, was librarians and their workers aren’t cool or hip. Well maybe we should stop trying to define who we are, maybe start re-branding ourselves as innovators and informing our users what we actually do in our jobs day by day. Possibly our image, and I do say our image may start to change. For example, we could describe what we do involves teaching, project management, directing, managing, public speaking, budgeting, marketing, demonstrating, researching, techno savy, motivating, etc etc you get the picture, let me know what you think.

  9. John Farrier says:

    “Make the library look antique. People like antiques, probably more than they do libraries. They also like the traditional physical culture of writing and reading. I write my journal in a leatherbound notebook with a fountain pen, and I can’t be the only one. So libraries should also start selling leatherbound journals and fountain pens.”

    I don’t necessarily agree with this direction, but I agree with the reasoning. We should go wherever the market goes.

  10. TaLu says:

    Hey! As long as we’re creating a library ‘experience,’ can we start theming ourselves, too? I wouldn’t mind working in Hogwart’s library, or maybe the Unseen University library? We could dress up as venerable wise people and carry formidable looking scrolls…

    Oooo… so many possibilities… ;^)

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