The Physical Book Problem

Image from Candida Höfer’s book, “Libraries”

Last week I was a little bit stressed out. The baby was crying non-stop, deadlines were on my mind and a big hiccup came down the pike with one of my major clients. I decided to go to the local library to spend some time by myself in a quiet environment where I could focus on my work and get it done. It had been about 15 years since the last time I had been to that library, mostly out of choice.

See, in my youth I made a few mistakes, including one that resulted in 60 hours of community service. I started working at a local historical society, which quickly moved to me being a greeter at the library. My job was to sit at a podium and answer questions whenever anyone walked in. Since most of my day would be spent doing nothing, I was allowed to pick out a book and read it while I worked. It was awesome.

As much fun as it was though, it was a low point in my life, and something I didn’t want to revisit. As a result, I never went back to that library, mostly out of shame.

Years passed, and now the closest library to my house is that very same one where I did my community service. So walking through the door that day, I figured that I’d have some familiar sights to see, and some awkward memories. Turns out, not so much.

First off, the smell was potent. It reeked of homeless men and beer, with a slight tinge of paper. The layout had been played around with a lot, resulting in a confusing mess that was difficult to navigate. Then there were the jobless, which sat in rows at the computers, spending their time looking up jobs. Seriously, every computer kiosk was taken.

I wandered around, looking for a quiet place to sit by myself. I walked toward a corner, and as I saw a shady looking character staring me down behind his sunglasses, I was immediately reminded of how expensive my laptop was, and how unfortunate it would be to lose it. I decided to move to a more public area, and I sat down at a table in front of two guys watching a DVD on a portable DVD player. I was guessing by one of their “Welcome to Kazahkstan” shirts that they were big Borat fans, but the soup stains on the front told me a different story.

I worked for 15 minutes, but two things stopped me from going further: The horrible Wi-Fi designed to be PC friendly but not Mac, and the smell of dead fish coming from my neighbors. I packed up, left, and went on my way.

Of course, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with Apple products, and here’s my take.

I love books. Physical, hardcover or paperback, bound or looseleaf, books. I love the smell, the texture, the feel of it in your hands. That’s why I’m working on getting a sizable library going in my living room, and I plan to have a full one in my next house. That’s also the reason why the Kindle never appealed to me. I understood the benefits to having all of my books in a small, compact place, but not the lack of physical books. To me, I figured I’d be buying two copies of everything. That way, if Amazon decided to take my book back (which they’ve done before), I’ve still got a copy. That doesn’t make a lot of financial sense, of course, so I just never bought in to the plan.

Enter the iPad. With its sleek pricing, fancy display and awesome looks, it’s destined to take over a segment of the e-book system. It’s the product that might convince me to finally buy e-books, and I’m not the only one. If this happens, and e-books become the way to go, what happens to the library system?

I was led to this thought by a conversation on School Library Journal.com, discussing this very topic. Will books go the way of the dinosaur? Will libraries lose funding and shrink in size? It’s an interesting read for sure, and I suggest you check it out. From my perspective, I think that the homeless will always have a library to crash at, and that our physical record of all things is still important. That said, I do see some drawbacks for the library. Maybe a digital version is the answer, with rentals and all.

Comments

  1. Cliver Roberts says:

    While in college 30 years ago I worked for a city library system. Because, as I was told, I appeared threatening, one of my ‘assignments’ was rousting the drunks, druggies, and masterbaters from restrooms and the book stacks (aisles). Such’ ‘visitors’ were just part of doing business as a free and open space, warm when cold, dry when wet. Given our economy and pop. growth, no doubt, the problems have gotten worse. But the same is true in public space everywhere there are large populations.

Speak Your Mind

*