I remember watching the neighborhood’s first television with a bunch of neighbors. The tube was mounted horizontally, it took a long time to adjust the Indian test pattern, and there was only an hour and a half of programming each day. Even so, one of the men standing there thought he saw the future.
“That’s it,” he said, “nobody’s ever going to go to the movies again.”
Well, TV didn’t kill the movies. Music CDs did discourage sales of vinyl records for a while, but they’re making a strong comeback, with pressing plants being built and new albums being released. Digital downloads are currently popular because you aren’t forced to buy songs you don’t want, but music CDs done right are selling like crazy. Just ask Taylor Swift.
Cell phones did suppress wristwatch purchases among young people for a while, but sales have been up for the last three years. People do enjoy watching movies over the Internet, but they’re still buying DVDs. And the only newspapers that will be put out of business by the web are those that try to look like a web page. Papers that publish articles of substance, with background and perspective, will be around for a long time.
That’s why what most libraries are doing is idiotic to the point of being suicidal. Because they’ve convinced themselves that e-books will make paper books obsolete, they’re throwing out 20 to 30 percent of their paper collections, including classic titles.
The trouble is that paper books are not becoming obsolete. Of those Americans that read any books last year, the number who read an e-book did indeed increase 5 percent. However, the number who read paper books didn’t drop. It increased 4 percent. In fact, only 2 percent of American readers claim to be e-book only readers.
People are simply reading more in every format. They’re watching more movies in theaters, on DVDs, and online. They’re listening to more music, and communicating more. It’s true that they’re doing more email than snail mail, but that’s primarily because most emails are too trivial to put on paper and stamps cost money. If it cost half a buck to tell someone about a cute cat video, people wouldn’t do that either.
Even though e-books cost less than paper books, paper book sales are up almost 8 percent. And that is in a world in which the economy is still not doing well and people are still being extremely careful with their money. The industry believes it will do even better in the future.
E-books are great to stick in your briefcase when you travel, and they’re perfect for textbooks that have to be updated. They let you read steamy romance novels in public, and they’re cheap, although their price has spawned one of the bitterest fights in the industry. But the experience of reading an e-book is simply different than reading a paper book, in part because of the way the text is formatted.
Libraries will never be able to justify their existence if all they have to offer is an older version of the same electronic equipment that people have at home. And if they get rid of their collections to “make room for” miscellaneous services that are also available in the private sector, they are going to receive, and deserve, serious criticism from the people who support them financially.
The greatest loss would be if this nationwide trend causes the interlibrary loan system to break down, so that some rare and important titles are no longer available from any source. Then the library experts who foresaw a world without paper books will be able to say they were right. But it will be they who made it happen.