Friday, January 25, 2013

A Book-less Future?

Is there anything that truly surprises us in this high tech world any more? We are so accustomed to the unbelievable becoming reality that we barely react to the latest developments. Shock and amazement have been replaced by a bland response of "cool." Thus, the announcement of the opening later this year of a book-less library in San Antonio, Texas, is not an earth shattering item in the news either.

It's interesting for me to ponder the first Bibliotech especially having just returned to the real world after a three day trip back to a former one due to a power outage from our most recent winter storm. It's an amusing contrast. This is the honest to goodness truth, on Tuesday of last week, I began reading The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder to my nine-year-old son. Life out there on the prairie a hundred and fifty years ago was arduous, especially when compared to the progress we've made, managing our entire day with the two by three inch screen we carry in our pocket. The living book really came alive as we sat in the candlelit room Thursday evening reading about the first blizzard of what would become seven life-threatening months in the Ingalls family's battle with nature. We had no computer, TV, or internet to entertain us during our own snowstorm. Fortunately, there was a real book around and a blind mother who had no trouble reading aloud to the family in the dark.

To get back to the present and my thoughts on the latest progress of the modern library. This twenty-first century library boasts the existence of no physical books. It will have banks of computers and hundreds of e-readers instead. Checking out books to read at home will not require a trip to the library at all if you don't need to  borrow an e-reader. You will be able to remotely download hundreds of them. The children's section will have interactive tables and even walls to entertain them. The visionary librarian makes these remarks:

"It will be a learning environment -- you'll be able to learn about technology itself as well as access a tremendous amount of information," Wolff said . . . But it won't be a completely paper-free library. "The only thing I believe we will charge for is if you want to print out something."

Well, Mr. Wolff, you have come a long way from the library of my childhood. I remember the distinct scent of the place. I remember the hushed atmosphere. When I stepped through that old neighborhood public library door, or entered the library in the basement of my elementary school, my heart changed its rhythm. The prospect of long aisles of neatly lined shelves towering over me was thrilling. It was thrilling because I never knew who I was going to meet or where I was going to go that day. When I left with my stack of new treasures, the expectation of spending time with new people in hitherto undiscovered adventures was anticipation of a sort not experienced when you boot up a gadget. I made friends with Little Eddie, and  Betsy and Billy. I traveled to Scotland and suffered the agonies of Lassie's endless trek through that rugged country. I got lost at sea and built a home in a tree with the Swiss Family Robinson. There's not room here to name all the animals and people I came to know in between visits to and from that library, the figures in my personal literary hall of fame: Laura Ingalls, Sarah Crewe, Old Yeller, Black Beauty, Charlotte and Wilbur.
I stayed on farms in New England and huts in the Andes; I suffered seasickness on vessels in the Pacific, not to mention the trip I took in the rickety airplane of Amelia Earhart.

I'm not sure a quest for "information" was on my mind at all. Although I certainly acquired plenty of it, the draw for me was the new story. You see, Mr. Wolff, though times have changed, I don't think some things ever will. Your tech-y library is just not going to satisfy the human heart. The aspect you've neglected, or forgotten, or choose to ignore is that some of us don't have this efficient utilitarian need you think we do. To tell you the truth, we're not all that interested in "information," for its own sake. Oh, we're dying to know all kinds of things, I won't deny that, but the fact is, we're aching to live in a world where our heart really pounds with fear when our hero is in trouble, where our eyes shed real tears during the miseries of our fellow men, where time stands still while our attention is absorbed in discovering unknown details of life we can't encounter in our normal day. Certainly we are on a pursuit of knowledge, but not just to archive information we can make use of on our next job, or to pass the next exam, or to give us a boost up in the world. Your  sterile, space saving library may be efficient for some pursuits, but we'd like a little real life as a matter of fact, that touches real bindings, that smells that unmistakable book aroma, that enjoys the searching quest up and down the aisles pulling out possibility after possibility from a real pile of books. Most of all, we want to be in living touch with living, breathing books.

While you may be offering some of these same books through electronic media, my concern is that today's children have so little exposure with stories in their lives that there is no connection for them between the books you have known in your traditional library to those in your new one. If they have never entered into those make-believe worlds, and fascinating narratives in real books, why would they ever want to investigate or select anything from your menu that would actually require: 1) the ability to read (which is rapidly disappearing); 2) time and fixed attention to capture their imagination (which is also disappearing); or 3) possess the imagination that drives them to thirst for more information?

A child who has not been read to, has not entered into the world inside their own mind; a child who has been offered games and electronic images has not discovered that they can create their own. The fascination factor is fading. The motivation to know is absent. Have you considered the possibility that the current trend of
indifference to story, let alone the deterioration in education in general, may be a direct result of over exposure to electronic media. Information saturated children are sinking.

I agree that a library is a place for learning. I agree that electronic text contains the same content as printed books. My argument is that content and wonder may be leagues apart at this time in history. We are fast approaching the point where wonder is extinct.

Just in case you take time to consider some of my ideas and haven't rejected me as an old-fashioned, out-of-touch crank, I do have a positive suggestion. Perhaps you could invite a real adult to come and read a story from a captivating book to the children in the children's section of your library. It wouldn't take up that much room. There is a danger in this, I understand. It is entirely possible that if you allow this they might not sign in on any of your devices. It's also possible that they might wonder where more of those kind of books are.

For the joy of reading,



  1. Thank you for your post. I am a homeschooling mom, but also a part-time clerk at a public library. I live in both worlds you described - the one of growing up with good books and having the joy of reading them aloud now to my own children. I also watch the invasion of libraries with more and more technology. I watch as we delete more and more of the real books from our collection, and sometimes I feel like I am deleting "people". I don't know what my future is going to be in libraries, because although I am not opposed to learning more technology, I'm just not sure that it is the reason I started working in the library field (I thought it was to encourage the love of reading and the appreciation for what is good). My dream is to start a bookstore called "Real Books", because I have a sense that someday the tide will turn and there will be a generation that yearns again for reading as an experience - the feel of the page, the smell of the binding, the look of the spine. I'm just glad to know that there are others beside me who feel the same. Thanks again for sharing your heart.

    1. Anne,

      It means so much to me that you would take the time to respond to my post. Electronic books have meant a lot to me since so few are available in Braille, so my point wasn't to knock e-books. It makes me grateful to know there are others who also share my heart for the children and their future. Perhaps you will be open to beginning a
      homeschool library yourself some day so that other children will grow up with your same passion for the next generation. I love the idea of your book store, even as I have watched them closing down right and left, and read just the other day that only 38 percent of Americans have ever, ever entered a bookstore in their entire life. I encourage you to push back against the trends. I'm again thankful to know there are hearts like yours present at the public library.