November 14th, 2010

(no subject)

Recently I read a piece in the Los Angeles Times  that made me laugh out loud. Multiple Times.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a humor column, but an ostensibly journalistic piece on the future of reading that focused on changes libraries are making in order to “stay relevant.” (Are you chuckling yet?)

It focuses, to a large extent, on some of the changes that have been made in Colorado libraries—including one that scrapped the Dewey Decimal system and set up bookstore-style sections of books, according to topic. (Hey, wait a minute—isn’t the Dewey Decimal system organized by topic?) That made me think of when I used to work at B. Dalton Bookseller, and my manager had to break the news that we were getting rid of the Classics section, merging those books into the Fiction section. While some of the staff were horrified at the news (and not only because it would require extensive re-shelving and rearranging), the manager swiftly calmed our arguments with one simple sentence: “Who decides what goes in the Classics section, anyway?” An excellent point—and anyone who has searched a bookstore for a book only to be told it’s not in Short Stories, it’s in Gift Books, will understand the challenges that now face patrons of this particular library who are searching for a particular book.


The piece went on to claim that, in their desperate race to remain relevant, libraries are converting themselves to “digital activity centers” where patrons can watch TV or play games like Guitar Hero. This transition paragraph led to a fabulous quote by former ALA president Michael Gorman: "The argument that all these young people would turn up to play video games and think, 'Oh by the way, I must borrow that book by Dostoyevsky' — it seems ludicrous to me." 

 And this, in turn, led to the funniest bit of the piece—and an outstanding bit of editorializing: “Others argue that reinvention is a matter of survival in an age when Google Inc. has made the reference desk almost obsolete and printed books are beginning to look more like antique collectibles.”

I don’t know about you, but except for the few books I have that actually are antique collectibles, most of my volumes—including the several I checked out from my local library, which archaically still espouses the values of the Dewey Decimal system—are pretty dang new. Their spines are uncracked; their covers are not yet ripped; and when I open them, they smell like new paper. And I turn to reference librarians regularly, sometimes even calling libraries in other states to pinpoint the information I need to wrap up a feature story.

But anyway.

The piece went on to describe the floor of the Los Angeles Public Library that actually has books as a ghost town. Again, I thought of my local library. Whenever I go there—weekday afternoons, weekend mornings, evenings, whatever—the parking lot is quite full; inside, the seats are definitely ull; and there is always a line to check out books. It’s funny that suburban Orange should have a more active library than its more sophisticated neighbor to the north, but if the Los Angeles Times says it’s true, I guess there’s no arguing.

For the record, I subscribe to the Times—and have written for it. And certainly it is not the only media outlet shouting about the complete overhaul of The Way We Read that we are currently experiencing.

As I read various “the literary sky is falling” pieces in newspapers, magazines, blogs, and newsletters, I say to myself, “I just don’t think so.”

There are issues, of course; to paywall, or not to paywall? To go all digital, when there are fewer advertising dollars there, or to pay high printing costs, when the subscribers may not be there? We are clearly in the midst of change, but where the chips will fall remains to be seen. And that is exactly the point of an essay I ready by Andrew Odlyzko, founding directory of the University of Minnesota’s Digital Technology Center, in the Fall 2010 issue (print) of The Phi Beta Kappa Reporter.

A not-too-well-known principle, he wirtes, is that “new technologies frequently serve to strengthen their predecessors. (Thus, in the popular language of the last few decades, they are ‘sustaining’ and not ‘disruptive.’)”

I have heard this example from writer and editor colleagues already—just as television did not kill radio, the internet need not kill print media. Odlyzko takes as his example horses and trains, noting that both proponents and opponents of the new travel technology expected it to put horses out of business, but instead, the number of horses rose. After all, people still needed a way to get from their homes to the train station.

“How many times have you seen predictions and promises that better communications, such as faster Internet access, will stimulate telecommuting and decrease road congestion?” he asks wryly.

I don’t think it’s merely my Southern California location that helps me see the truth of his thoughtful questions and careful explanations of the principles of technology forecasting.

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