NOTE: This is another article I originally wrote for my library blog. But since it has so much to do with books, I’m duplicating it here too.
Okay. That’s it. I’ve been hearing more and more doomy, gloomy predictions about libraries and books over the past year or so, and I feel like it’s gotten to the point that I just have to say my own piece. You might disagree with me. That’s okay. I might end up being wrong on this one (I have, actually, been wrong quite a few times in my life), but for better or worse, I need to get this out of me.
Libraries aren’t going anywhere. Books aren’t going anywhere. End of story.
Note: this isn’t to say that libraries and books aren’t changing. They are–quite drastically in some respects. But change does not equal disappearance. But I hear people saying things like all books are going to be free, which would make me lose both of my professions. Self-publishing will eradicate the need to pay for books, so why need libraries? Why need paid authors? Free free free!
First point: libraries are more than books. Libraries are information. The casing of that information may change (scrolls, papyrus, books, ereaders, computers), but the information itself is still there. If librarians are information brokers, and the amount of information is increasing, then why in the world should we be worried about our jobs going anywhere?
Well, one reason is because non-librarians inevitably have this Books=Librarians mindset. And so they see a blow to physical copies of books as a blow to librarians as a profession. It could well be that this mindset will strike a significant blow to librarians for a few years. But I have every confidence that such a blow would be short lived. As soon as everybody’s trying to find all the information that they’ve lost track of, they’ll come running back to librarians, hat in hand.
But wait–what about Google? It finds you everything you might possibly need.
Google does a great job of finding broad information about something. It’s a great phone book and encyclopedia and almanac. But start tracking what you actually use Google for, and how successful or unsuccessful you are with those searches. One of the biggest flaws of Google is that you need to know an information resource exists, or you might well completely miss an important source of information. Let’s say you’re interested in children’s publishing. Allow me to show how such a search might go.
You don’t know a lot about the topic, so you start with “Writing books for kids.” First off, let me remind you that most searchers don’t go beyond the third result in a Google results page. The top three results get 60% of the clicks. The top result gets more than a third, all by its lonesome. So we’ll assume you’re a typical researcher–not a dedicated pro (like, say . . . a librarian). The top three results Google returns are all ads paid for by their sponsors. Let’s hope you’re at least with it enough to know to ignore the ads and go down to actual results. Two are for Amazon books, and one is of questionable merit. (Family-based, clunky website).
You ignore the fantastic underdown.org–because it’s the ninth result. Only 1.8% of searches get down that far in the results page. So, since you came up empty, you change your search (assuming you’re really dedicated here). “Writing books for children.” Underdown.org is now the fourth result (not counting the three additional ads that popped up first). 7.9% of researchers will click that one. And this is assuming you know what you’re doing and can adequately distinguish the difference between a good website and a bogus one. (Speaking as an information professional, it ain’t always that easy.)
What I mean to say is that you need to do research to find quality sources–even using Google. But most people don’t realize this. They’ll spend hours and hours searching for something that a subject specialist would know off the top of their head. Hours and hours they could have been doing something else. That’s a distinct need, folks. And where there’s a need, there’s a job.
Librarian’s aren’t going anywhere.
What about books? Books are going to become free, right? Anyone can publish one. People will refuse to pay for one. Publishers will go under. Agents will fall. Dogs and cats will start playing in the streets together.
If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you while you’re busy writing your free book.
Again–this isn’t to say that books aren’t going to change. I’m sure they will. But look at the music industry. It was panicked that the entire world would start pirating music. No one would make any money. Mass hysteria! Has that panned out? Not really. In fact, studies show that music pirates actually spend more money on music than non-pirates. Go figure.
People love music. They’ll continue paying to support the thing they love.
Books? People love books. They’ll do the same.
Yes, right now I could just hit a publish button and have every piece of writing I’ve ever done online at once. And many people are doing just that. But the more people who publish all the stuff they’ve written, the harder it is to find the quality stuff you actually want to read. A lot of work and effort goes in to writing and publishing a book. Rounds of edits. Design experience. Bookkeeping. Marketing. Publishers don’t just slap a “for sale” sticker on a book and send it out the door. (At least, not reputable publishers.)
It’s certainly possible that for a few years, everything will Seem Grim. The sky might look like it’s going to fall. But in the end, people will adapt. Change. Authors, publishers, agents–they might not all do the exact same things they do now in the exact same ways, but that’s life.
Anyone who tells you differently–who claims that libraries or books are dying–is probably selling you something. Either they’re making money working the conference circuits and trying to make a name for themselves, or they’re starting their own publishing venture, or they’re trying to drum up business for their own pet project.
Don’t listen to the doom and gloom. Worrying about Everything Changing is just plain silly, because in the end . . . everything changes anyway. Worrying doesn’t do a blessed thing to fix it. Instead, take all that energy you’re devoting to worrying and focus it someplace productive. Figure out what you can do to adapt. If you’re an author, keep writing books. If you’re a librarian, keep up to date on changes in technology. Know the change is coming, and roll with it.
And that’s all the soapbox I’ve got in me today.