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Magazines > Information Today > September 2010

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Information Today

Vol. 27 No. 8 — Sept. 2010

Popular Semantics
by Dick Kaser

A few years ago, OCLC published a study that explained how libraries are perceived in the eyes of the general public. One-third of the public respondents reported that they thought libraries were about “books,” a response that was viewed as somewhat negative since libraries are really not just about books anymore. In reality, though, libraries still continue to buy and loan quite a few books.

Projecting from data published in ITI’s Library and Book Trade Almanac, libraries of all kinds in the U.S. are still spending tens of billions of dollars each year on book acquisitions, despite the fact that many budgets have been cut in the last 2 years.

In a handy reference chart (no doubt designed to help public libraries make their case in our troubled economy), OCLC recently noted that public libraries circulate as many materials in a day as FedEx delivers packages worldwide (about 8 million units). Of course, not all of these units are books and not all the books are printed and bound copies. The media is not really the message this time.

Even in an age of one-liners (tweet, tweet), much of the social conversation is still about the knowledge contained in a package: “Check out this video,” “Read this article,” “Watch this clip,” “Listen to this track,” and, “I’m reading this book.” In an age of many formats, the metaphor of the book as an information container endures, and I am not surprised to see that ebook vendors are hawking their machines on the basis of giving an individual the opportunity to build a personal library of “books.”

At the ALA annual conference in June, book publisher Creative Education (a division of The Creative Company) was distributing copies of its fall catalog with the cover line: “Do school libraries need books?” (I am hoping this is a rhetorical question.) Creative reprinted a debate in the catalog, from The New York Times op-ed pages earlier this year, about the decision of the prestigious Cushing Academy to turn its library space into a learning center.

Headmaster James Tracy explains in his editorial that this was not a decision to eliminate books, but rather to eliminate a limited collection of books. While the hard copies may have been distributed through the academy, the new learning space, which is now purported to be the most popular destination on campus, is “awash in books of all formats,” according to Tracy.

In July, Amazon reported that its ebook sales had outnumbered hardcover sales in the previous quarter and for the first time ever. By June, Amazon was selling 180 digital books for every 100 hardcover editions. It’s now offering more than 630,000 titles for the Kindle ebook reader, which it reports is also selling much the same as the proverbial hot cake since the price was recently lowered. All that said, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) quickly noted that, across all booksellers, hardcover sales are up 22% this year over last.

Whether it’s a book, an ebook reader, or some other kind of information delivery device, the facts are clear: The container is here to stay, despite all the talk to the contrary. The intellectual notion (or is it a desire?) of having a collection of works at hand is not passé.

I hope that with all the public pressure on libraries to go with the search curve and down the path of the answering machines or the word-of-mouth social babble channels, libraries remember that their collections (their selections) also carry great value in a world where people need filtering.

This reminded me of a conversation I had at ALA with Gale/Cengage executive John Barnes, who told me that the educational publisher and information service provider is developing more and more services where materials are gathered into special collections and resource centers that are “editorially driven to provide context to information resources.”

It sounds to me as though librarianship is alive, well, and in high demand, even if the acquisition budgets have been shaved and even if “it’s all available online.” Long live the collection!

Dick Kaser is Information Today, Inc.’s vice president of content. Send your comments about this article to
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