The Once and Future Library
by Anthony Aycock
“The times,” according to Bob Dylan, “they are a-changin’.” This was true for Dylan in 1964, when he recorded the song that Rolling Stone would rank 59th on its 2004 list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (rocklistmusic.co.uk/rstone.html#500Songs), and it is true for us 53 years later. Our society is changing fast, and libraries, it seems, are at the epicenter of those changes.
|... libraries, like society, are more than thing-o-spheres. There are opportunities for change in structure, services, and people ...
Some people, such as David Pescovitz, research director at the Super Friends-sounding Institute for the Future, think libraries are about to get “completely upended.” In an interview with Business Insider (businessinsider.com/libraries-of-the-future-2016-8), Pescovitz says libraries “are poised to become all-in-one spaces for learning, consuming, sharing, creating, and experiencing.” In this new “library of experiences,” you might try “scaling Mt. Everest or living out an afternoon as a dog.”
Technology, of course, is what will make this possible—social media, streaming content, open source data, etc. Pescovitz tells librarians not to worry, assuring us that “humans will always need some sort of guide to make a foreign landscape more familiar” (although his follow-up thought, that the job of information cicerone may be “one for artificial intelligence,” seems to shout, “Worry away!”).
It is fun to look at things such as 3D printers, interactive ebooks, self-driving vehicles, augmented reality and virtual reality apps, and Ivy Guides (yankodesign.com/tag/ivy-guide-mini) and wonder what’s next. But libraries, like society, are more than thing-o-spheres. There are opportunities for change in structure, services, and people—stuff closer to the soul of libraries. Thus, what we talk about when we talk about library change should go beyond gadgets. Here are a few of the conversations that need to be had.
If you’re a fan of the movie The Hangover, you know the scene where the guys are driving into the desert to pay Mr. Chow $80,000 for the safe return of their friend Doug. The guys are happy that their ordeal seems to be over, and Phil makes the observation that “We are back, baby!” The others echo this sentiment, with Stu yelling, “We are baaaaaaack! We are baaaaaack!”
That may be how traditional print books feel in 2017. According to CNN (money.cnn.com/2017/04/27/media/ebooks-sales-real-books/index.html), ebook sales declined 18.7% over the first 9 months of 2016, while paperback sales shot up 7.5%, and hardback sales increased 4.1%. The New York Times, TheGuardian, Publishers Weekly, Financial Times, TheWall Street Journal, and WIRED have also covered the renaissance of print books.
You might think this is a generational thing, with Baby Boomers keeping the print ship afloat amid the cannonade of e-everything from Millennials, but that isn’t the case: Studies have found a “strong preference for printed textbooks, notably among those in college who have tried both types” (geekwire.com/2015/paper-back-real-books-rebound). I can attest to this. I’ve been an adjunct English instructor since 2010, and I recall only four or five students who had electronic instead of print textbooks. (Some didn’t have either, relying on the kindness of strangers for completing their assignments, but that is another story.)
Also of interest to biblio-watchers is the rise of self-publishing and small-press books. Self-publishing used to be the province of dilettantes and doggerel pushers, but many writers now see it as a legitimate venue. Lisa Genova’s Still Alice and Andy Weir’s The Martian were self-pubbed before they became bestsellers and were made into movies. Ditto Fifty Shades of Grey, which had an even humbler origin: It began as Twilight fan fiction.
Small presses are likewise enjoying elevated status, finding market niches that have led to huge growth. In 2016, for instance, three indie publishers—Page Street, Callisto Media, and Graywolf Press—had increases over 100% (publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/69573-fast-growing-independent-publishers-2016.html). Small publishers are also turning out higher-quality titles than in previous eras. Leslie Jamison is a household name thanks to The Empathy Exams, which won the 2011 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, published by unsung Night Shade Books, achieved a science fiction grand slam, winning Nebula, Hugo, Compton Crook, and Locus awards.
What does this mean for the future of libraries? Collection budgets have been flat or falling for years. It is time to reverse that trend. Gadgets are great, but books are a more enduring technology. If we invest more in them, who knows what dividends that investment could pay?
‘The King of Libraries’
Recently, I wrote about the traveling Carolina Manga Library, which serves manga and anime fans at conventions across the U.S. (“On the Go With the Carolina Manga Library,” Information Today, October 2017). Manga are Japanese graphic novels, and they are a hit with American teens (the English translations, anyway). The manga style is so popular that classics such as The Scarlet Letter have been adapted—which Laura Mehaffey, the director of the Carolina Manga Library, sees as a benefit. “Nobody wants to read The Scarlet Letter because it’s boring,” Mehaffey told me. “But you hand them the graphic novel version, and they’ll read it in 20 minutes and remember everything about it.”
If libraries succeed in increasing their collection budgets, a big part of that increase should go to the comic book medium. Once considered a kitschy, throwaway art form, comics are now mainstream, immensely popular, and not just for kids. The 1980s saw comics take on a more sober tone, epitomized by series such as The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, which won a Hugo Award and made TIME’s All-TIME 100 Novels list. Comic conventions are big business, with the largest ones drawing 100,000-plus attendees. Some libraries have their own in-house comic cons.
Publishers Weekly calls comics “the king of libraries” (publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/libraries/article/73599-com ics-the-king-of-libraries.html) and for good reason: They are fun and educational. Meryl Jaffe, an instructor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, says in an article in School Library Journal, “For weak language learners and readers, graphic novels’ concise text paired with detailed images helps [them] decode and comprehend the text. … Reading is less daunting, with less text to decode” (slj.com/2014/09/books-media/the-graphic-advantage-teaching-with-graphic-novels). Advanced readers can benefit from the “concise language usage” that graphic novels model.
Libraries that want to build or expand comic collections should be aware of the challenges. Web comics, like ebooks, raise issues of ownership, access, and lending. Some librarians may still be opposed to comics, dismissing their teaching value. Comic publishing is fast-paced and hard to keep up with. And would-be censors may find it easier to force out Matt Fraction than Mark Twain. The visual element that gives comics their power can also make them vulnerable. The same School Library Journal article quotes researcher Steven Cary, who calls the condition the “naked buns” effect. “It’s the rare student or parent who objects to the words ‘naked buns,’” says Cary. “But an image of naked buns can set off fireworks.”
George Carlin Would Turn Over in His Grave
Librarians have long been enemies of censorship, but consider how public discourse has changed in recent years. It is coarser now; less nuanced, more combative. The president encourages this, and his critics take the bait every time. Recently, the war of words has escalated into attempts to suppress. In October, the EPA stopped three of its scientists from speaking on climate change at a Providence, R.I., conference (slate.com/articles/technology/science/2017/10/epa_cancels_climate_change_talks_by_agency_scientists_at_conference.html). The president attacks the mainstream media on an almost daily basis. And his criticism of NFL players who kneel for the national anthem has led at least one team owner, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, to threaten to bench players who “disrespect” the American flag (espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/20961541/dallas-cowboys-owner-jerry-jones-says-player-disrespects-flag-play).
America needs diverse viewpoints. The absence of diversity can be damaging. In September 2017, I attended Dragon Con, a science fiction convention held every Labor Day weekend in Atlanta. At a panel of comic book and sci-fi writers, the panelists were asked about their most memorable fan interactions. Peter David talked about a young man who approached him once and thanked him for saving his life. Scared to tell his family that he was gay, the young man had been contemplating suicide. Then he read issue 45 of X-Factor, a Marvel comic. In the issue, two male characters, Shatterstar and Rictor, kiss. David wrote that issue and was praised for it. And the young man, seeing his sexuality represented in something as cool as X-Factor, found the courage to come out to his family.
Librarians are the natural facilitators for such diversity. Our role is not just to keep To Kill a Mockingbird on the shelves. We can model academic debate. We can publish research on the risks of censorship. We can host talks and provide training on the importance of intellectual freedom. We can support people whose views are attacked. As public discourse becomes more divided (and divisive), libraries can, and should, show Americans how to argue, not fight.
The library of the future is many things. “We talk a lot about information and the information age,” says Pescovitz, “but really what I think people are looking for is wisdom and knowledge.” Wisdom and knowledge have a number of sources, old and new, high-tech and heuristic, but they all share one quality: making patrons’ lives a little bit better. And that should be the focus of any library—past, present, or future.