The end of the library as we know it?

Daniel J. Flynn’s grim picture of modern urban public libraries struck a chord.

It also made me think of the generations of young Jewish immigrants at the turn of the last century who found a refuge from the busy streets around them in the public libraries.  There, they learned, read, and dreamed great dreams.  Now, the thinker and the dreamer wants nothing more than to escape from a public library.

Incidentally, Flynn is spot on in describing San Francisco’s main branch:

In San Francisco’s main library, I witness four legs sharing a bathroom stall, a transsexual engaging herself in a heated argument, and a security guard loudly informing a fellow patron: “You can’t take your shoes and socks off in here.”

The library was built at enormous cost to the City and has ended up being a scary homeless shelter.  In the beginning, the library tried to prevent this from happening by installing the most uncomfortable chairs ever know to God or man.  The homeless prevailed, though, to the extent that I would never allow my kids to enter that building alone.

Fortunately, in Marin, voters save their political correctness for the ballot box, so they can visit liberalism’s ills upon others.  This means that the libraries in Marin are very, very nice.

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  • Earl

    “When librarians go slumming for patrons, the slum’s problems become the library’s.”
    I’m afraid this is true of churches, as well…..inviting the entertainment culture into a house of worship in order to increase your “appeal to the young people” is a one-way ticket to irrelevance.  I want to shake my pastor and say “Do you think you can compete with the real thing?  Really?”

  • JKB

    I finished reading Seth Godin’s manifesto on ‘What school is for?’ Not a much real news but nicely presented. But he does discuss libraries which are not long for this world. Soon people will have more of a collection of books on their iPhone than most public libraries. But librarians, not as clerks, but as data guides are needed.

    This put me to mind toward what I thought schools should become but also the “public learning center” can be as well. That is a series of labs with terminals for knowledge searching, perhaps some resources, say to play around with making some electronic circuits or something.

    Knowledge is now out there, not to terrible to find, especially, if you are a knowledge explorer who gets caught up in the currents sometimes never getting to where you planned to go. But the “poor” might need access to some tools and bits to play with to create something new.

    I do, however, think we should have this one rule right from the start: Any robots someone makes at the public learning center must not become self aware and try to subjugate mankind. Nor have frickin’ laser beams on their head.

  • Mike Devx

    Libraries are slowly going by the wayside for the same reason that printed news is going by the wayside.  They simply cannot compete economically  with electronically/digitally distributed media.  The same is probably true of book stores.  All of these will become niche markets, servicing a small, selective clientele.
    That’s what I see.  It’s not based on my personal preferences, either.  If I’m going to read a book, I personally require a hardcopy book in my hands, and I have no use for electronic/digital media.  I just don’t like it.  With each new generation the percentage of people who feel and think like me shrink.
    Schools and textbooks: It’s hard to predict in which year hardcopy textbooks become obsolete, such that all children carry a “display tablet” that talks to a school’s central “cloud” server.  Once students can compose their homework purely on a screen, using a keyboard and an electronic stylus, and submit it upon completion to the server for the teacher to review and grade, the game is over.
    The economics of online management and distribution of reading material vs hardcopy books is irrefutable in the long run.  The technology is almost – but not quite completely – ready.  It could probably be done in five years, but will more likely take ten or fifteen.  Why an extra ten years?   Because, in truth, we’re in no rush.  But economics make it inevitable.

  • Earl

    I find it profoundly depressing…..but I think that Mike is right.

  • Ron19

    Like you guys above, I prefer a print edition of a book.
    Even more, I prefer not to have that extra pile of print books in my house instead of my Kindle books in my readers and cloud.  The current count is over a thousand.
    A side benefit is the about 200 book samples that I thought might be interesting but haven’t gotten around to sampling yet.
    This is one part of my life where I can have a foot in each world.

  • JKB


    Come September, my cousin’s high schooler at a private Christian school is required to have an iPad to hold her textbooks. I expect that will snowball so in 5 years pulp textbooks will be the rarity.

    The school backpack market is set to collapse. But then better that than kids under a load of outdated paper.

  • jj

    It seems to me it’s entirely possible there may be a connection between reading and libraries.  Americans don’t much read – and haven’t for quite some time – and that makes the survival of libraries problematical.  In 1976 Harlan Ellison annoyed a meeting of the Southern California Book Publicists during a talk to them in which – in his own words – “instead of blowing smoke up their asses telling them what a wonderful thing book publicity through the Johnny Carson show is” he quoted to them some statistics from HEW.  The statistics were that 8% of the then 220,000,000 Americans (that’s 17,600,000) buy books at all, and of that 8% only 2% (that’s 352,000) buy more than a single book a year.  The other 98% of that measly 8%’s single literary experience for the year was Jaws; or Oliver’s Story; or 50 Shades of Grey; or Breaking Dawn or The DaVinci Code.  It sure as hell isn’t Look Homeward, Angel; Remembrance of Things Past; or The Great Gatsby.  Which is why, in this nation of, nowadays, 300-whatever-it-is million people, if a book sells 150,000 copies it’s a runaway best-seller.  It’s generally also crap.
    In a nation with so little use for books, what price libraries?  I’m from New York, and the other cities I related to at various times in my life have been Boston, London, and Seattle.  All with pretty good library systems, NY and London being maybe the two best on the planet.  Boston was good: it’s a literate sort of place, and of course it’s up to its ears in students.  In my day, which predated cell phones, computers, tablets etc., you researched at the library.  All the schools had good ones, but if the libraries at BU, BC, Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, or any of the smaller institutions couldn’t help, you went to the city.  But Boston was a toy compared to NY and London – and Seattle’s a toy compared to Boston.
    An enormous student population kept Boston good in pre-computer days, and that presence plus so many enterprises with research arms did – and to an extent even in the internet age still do – the same for New York and London.  The internet has doubtless affected them, but they’re huge, and both cities really value them as institutions, so they endure quite well, and I must say I never saw any of that San Francisco kind of crap in either place. 
    Good places.  If you’ve never made it to the New York Public Library and the opportunity presents itself, check it out.

  • Charles Martel

    San Francisco is the closest to an East Coast city that the left coast can boast. It was settled primarily by immigrants from the East, so, unlike Los Angeles, which is really a Midwestern (now Mexican) city by a sea, SF is like a transplanted Boston or New York. If you take a walk through the town, its vibe in terms of density is much like an eastern burg.
    But where it departs from that is that San Francisco fell victim to California’s siren song of great climate and pellucid light. Benign weather and a quality of light that thoroughly confused eastern artists used to haze and murk derailed San Francisco’s attempt to become a serious literary town. Why spend hours each winter huddled in dark, wood-paneled libraries when the glorious sunlight called you out to play? 
    Consequently, the town never developed a real library tradition. While the idea of free public libraries caught on, the tradition of a serious academic tone, such as Boston’s, never did. Yes, until the arrival of the barbarisms of multiculturalism, San Francisco’s libraries were nice and welcoming, but they were never a destination for serious readers or academics. So there never developed a habit of fiercely protecting the institution, and when it came time to sacrifice the city’s libraries on the altar of political correctness, nobody stepped forward to defend them. Asking a San Franciscan to take seriously what libraries once represented would be the same as asking him to vote Republican or go one day without an orgasm. It’s just not done.
    The Main is a pathetic simulacrum of a real library. I’ve been to it three times and each time couldn’t wait to leave. While the stench and indifference of the homeless squatters there is distressing enough, it’s the unctuous air of disdain and superiority from the staff that bothers me more. They sit among a diminishing, but still impressive, collection of our civilization’s best ruminations, but cannot bestir themselves to fight for anything about it other than their perks.

  • Ron19

    As for textbooks, in grade school and high school, parochial and public, we students of the dark ages of education, a.k.a. Baby Boomers, learned with mostly used text books.  Our parents paid for them, looking for good bargains, and instilled in us an attitude of taking care of them so they could be sold again or passed down to a sibling.
    With forty years of hindsight, I can easily see that we didn’t miss anything in the way of education by not having a text book written and published in the previous year.  Current History was about the only subject that needed updating, and that could be done with a less expensive paperback or just taking good notes at the end of the course.
    But years later, when I went back to school to finish my degree, even subjects that hadn’t had new discoveries in decades were taught with textbooks that had a half-life of one or two years.  The value of used textbooks  went down as teachers upgraded their lesson plans every few years, needing brand new textbooks that weren’t any better than the ones before them, although I’ll have to admit that biology had changed tremendously over the recent years.  But not English Composition or Calculus.

  • lee

    “Teachers” upgrading their lesson plans every few years? I thought Common Core took care of EVERYTHING!!!
    Seriously, though, about libraries: They may wind up being archives. I spend HOURS in the Queens Public Library’s Queens County History archives. It was a great collection, with a fantastic staff. At SF’s library, I was looking for an long out of print book on William Gaynor (doing research on him in NYC would have been a better idea, but I was no longer living in NY at this point), and the American History librarian specialist was an enormous help.
    There are a LOT of books that are out-of-print and it may take EONS for the Guttenberg project to get to them (if they are in the public domain.) For those NOT in the public domain, it may take EONS x 2, for anyone to get around to digitizing them.
    Of coures, this will mean GREATLY scaled back libraries…
    Too bad SF’s threw away so much when they moved to the new digs–at this point, much of it could’ve been digitized. And in the not too distant future, when they cull their collection of digitized stuff, they may actually have room for the irreplaceble things that were tossed out.

  • Ymarsakar

    Those who either supported the Left’s ascension or ignored it so they could play pretend, will burn for it sooner or later.
    If Hell doesn’t drag you down into metaphysical certainty, then the Left will create one for you on Earth, so you can burn as your reward.

  • Gringo

    The public libraries in the city where I reside, though my city votes the same as Baghdad by the Bay or Marin, have not  been taken over by the homeless. At least not yet. In addition to hard copy books, the public library system has a lot of electronic information resources which I can access from home. There is a LOT of information out there, which leads to JKB‘s point:
    But librarians, not as clerks, but as data guides are needed.
    For example, the federal government has reams upon reams of online data. Most of us could use some assistance in navigating it. Trying to find the information out there can be like finding a needle in a haystack. Librarians can be of assistance. Or should be.
    One good use of public library funds would be to assist Project Gutenberg in digitizing books. Project Gutenberg digitizes in the neighborhood of  only 3,000 books per year. For example, there are a lot of good history books which have already been digitized by Project Google or by Microsoft, but need a LOT of cleaning up in terms of proofreading and in creating a digitized table of contents.
     In keeping with  my old pattern of  being a slow adapter of new technology, I didn’t purchase an e-reader until several months ago. I still read hard copy books, but I suspect I will be following the path of a relative who much prefers her e-reader. My bad eyesight makes it easier to read without glasses – which is easier with an e-reader, as I hold the “book” very close to my eyes.
    One instance in which an e-book provides a better solution to hard copy is with books from  foreign countries. I have bought e-books  dealing with  Latin America  which cost $8-$10, compared with hard copy costs of $30-$80. Part of the reason for the high cost is mailing a book from overseas. Low volume is another reason. Moreover, there would not be the demand for publishing such books in the US.
    For those interested in finding out more about Venezuela, I recommend :

    Blogging the Revolution: Caracas Chronicles in the Hugo Chavez Era

  • Ymarsakar

    One of the best price gauging monopolies in existence here in the US is based around school textbooks and to a lesser extent, school computers and hospital equipment.
    Imagine if you were required to buy a new car every year as the prerequisite to staying at your current job, but you can only buy a specific version released by X company.
    Many students comprehend how this works intuitively. The fact that politicians ignore is, just convinces them that only the (corrupt) Democrats can (corrupt) get them a “fair shake”.