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The Hyped Future or the Desired Future?

The seemingly weekly Pew Internet study of libraries has been published. The theme is how much young people love libraries. We can hardly blame them.

We can contrast it with the most ridiculous article about libraries I’ve read in a while, The Future of the Library: Short on Books, Long on Tech. Time Magazine is definitely declining, and that’s saying something. It’s sort of like the article by that media guy who wouldn’t miss a library he had never entered, at least in that the writer apparently hasn’t used a library since high school.

Exhibit A, in a discussion of a library at North Carolina State University:

Rather than the Dewey system, color-coded walls, stairs and elevators help you find not just books and research papers, but also media rooms, video game collections and even a 3-D printing lab to create plastic models.

The Dewey System? Did NCSU ever use Dewey, at least in the last 30 years or so? Has this writer ever used a college library?

And are we seriously to believe that a university library uses color-coded walls “rather than the Dewey system”? Color-coded walls can be very useful for navigation, but they’re hardly going to replace a classification system in an academic library.

The description of what people might use the library to find even seems odd. “Books and research papers”? I guess technically the articles published in journals are “research papers,” but that’s not what people usually call them.

Or this one: “in the booming Bexar County in San Antonio, you’ll see the same thing: groups of people huddle over gadgets instead of the card catalog…. No stern librarian here to hush you into submission.”

Card catalog? When was the last time anyone used one of those? The fastest way to find even print books is by huddling over a device and search the ONLINE catalog.

And another one: “s library attendance declines, officials facing tough budget cutbacks see them as easy targets.” As far as I can tell, library attendance hasn’t declined at all, so what is this based on?

Another clue that the writer is clueless is the question apparently meant to be rhetorical: “When was the last time you stepped into a library? Probably, not in a while. After all, when you have Google, you can look up anything with a smartphone or tablet.”

That’s the sort of statement that leaves me almost speechless. Honestly, how can you respond to such an uninformed statement.

First of all, you can’t look up just anything with Google. Second of all, why don’t you pay attention to what libraries actually offer when you’re writing an article about libraries? Is that too much to ask?

Another priceless quote: “You may think libraries a dying relic, but surprisingly, people still go there to use computers, often to look for work or beef up their tech skills.”

The “you” being addressed says a lot about the narrow perspective of the writer, but not a darn thing about libraries.

Who does “you” not include? Well, it doesn’t include the 67% of those ages 16-29 or 62% of those aged 30 and older whom the Pew survey claims have visited a library in the past year.

Or the roughly 20-50% of Americans aged 16-29 who have had some sort of technological interaction with a library, from using the Internet to visiting library websites.

Surprisingly, people still go to use computers. Or not surprisingly. “97% of Americans under age 30 say it is important for libraries to provide free computer and internet access to the community, including 75% who say it is ‘very important.’” That’s a lot of support for computers in libraries.

Advice from people who never use libraries is often humorous. Here’s the Time writer: “A shift is needed. To move libraries from places where you look up facts to those where you learn skills and engage in new experiences. Instead of “shushing” librarians and stilted study rooms, libraries often have integrated art galleries, coffee shops and even cafeterias.”

Good grief. Yet according to the Pew survey, “72% [of Americans under 30] say quiet study spaces are ‘very important.’” You say “stilted study room” (whatever that means), I say “quiet study space.” Let’s definitely call the whole thing off.

Oh, and as for fewer books, how do Americans under 30 feel about that? Well, 75% say there should be books available for borrowing, and only 23% say libraries should “move some books/stacks out of public locations.”

So it would seem young people, 75% of whom have read at least one print book in the last year, and 25% of whom have read at least one ebook, want libraries to have books. Print books, ebooks, all sorts of books.

Of the 82% who had read at least one book in some format in the previous year, 13 books was the average and 6 books the mean. That leaves a lot of heavy readers, who are exactly the sort of people to rely on libraries for at least some part of their book consumption.

So who are we to believe about the future of libraries? An uninformed journalist who mentions some outlying trends like “bookless libraries,” but who doesn’t know much about libraries or the people who use them, or a survey of what people who use libraries actually want from them?

Instead of getting rid of the books, the nonexistent card catalog, and the almost certainly nonexistent stern, shushing librarians, I’d recommend listening to what actual library users want. It might not be sexy, but it’s good.



  1. Grenouille says:

    One thing to be confident about after reading the Time article – there will be no shortage of clueless people to help with their reference questions and tech problems well into the future. “Ask a librarian? Nah I’ll just Google it, provided I can turn this damn thing on.”

  2. Time, like many corporations probably laid off most, if not all of their librarians. If they’d had a librarian, the librarian could have helped with the accuracy of the story.

    • Victoria says:

      Haha, yes! Good point. Funny how these writers have no clue what libraries actually do. This article makes Time look silly and uninformed; it has been like that for a while actually. That’s why I prefer The Economist.

  3. Guybrarian says:

    Yep. I could barely get through this article when I read it a few days ago. How far Time has fallen. Perhaps an actual librarian could write an article that discusses our dwindling need for third rate periodicals and the “journalists” employed by them. I mean, ya know, you can find everything on Google anyway so who needs em?

    • Girlbrarian says:

      Guylibrarian, that is really brilliant – you should email the editor!

  4. Bibliona says:

    Okay, I want to go to the Harvard Library and eat a telegram made with graham crackers and 3-D icing printers, then go to their online photo opera where to experience “death by technology.” Don’t you?

  5. Stephen Michael Kellat says:

    The last time I performed maintenance on a card catalog was in 2007. The UPS has had a bit of a workout so far this summer with the number of power outages but thankfully I have access to candles, hurricane lamps, and printed books. The UPS battery has also run out of power in two of the power outage situations this summer too. My print collection is small but nicely mixed between non-fiction and fiction.


  1. […] Annoyed Librarian’s article on “The Hyped Future or the Desired Future?” (I had read the articles/surveys mentioned in this piece separately and AL brought up some great points) Oak Park Public Library’s Idea Box – what a neat thing! Apparently the Youth Services group in my library are thinking of something similar. I definitely want to get in on that action! Tumblarians! Love this. I’ve been following a few for a while and this is a great read to see why. Weird things you can check out at a public library. I don’t think my library has anything like this, but we will have some awesome science kits this fall (fossils, dinosaurs, bones, rocket launchers, etc.). Creative Programming for Older Adults – this is a good read, especially since I’m at a public library where 50+% of its programming is geared toward children. Apparently we have a lot of trouble getting more adults in for programming (unless they are here for their kid), so it’s good to see some ideas like this around. […]

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