PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.
It is difficult to build a library collection these days, as the format in which information is produced keeps changing; except for the paper-produced books!
Libraries in the U.S. started as collections of books and documents, with the first “different format” being the stocking of journals and magazines.
While still in paper format, they were short-lived in the collection used for browsing and research within a certain time period.
In the 1940s, 16mm films and long-playing records appeared in the library collection and had a fairly long period of active usage in excess of 40 years.
Beta videocassettes appeared around 1980, followed by VHS videocassettes. It seems that the active life of an information format shrinks with each new format, except books.
Books on Cassette have evolved into Books on CD, videocassettes have become DVDs, not to mention a whole series of formats that appeared and disappeared, sometimes within a year.
And the poor librarian is trying to build a collection of “things” to meet the needs of public.
Add to this collection mix the Internet and databases, which can be more unpredictable than ever, it is hard to know what the library collection will look like any given day.
(Did you ever discover that your favorite web site that has been in operation since the beginnings of the Internet, simply disappeared without a trace?)
This leads to the future of the public library in America. What will it look like in a decade, and will it even exist?
In 1900, it was predicted that public libraries would go away with the addition of indexes to most nonfiction books. People could find their own information using an index.
By the 1920s, dime novels had invaded America, published in cheap pasteboard covers, and no one would use a public library.
The Great Depression of the 1930s brought throngs of new library users, and public libraries began offering “new” services to the new users, who never went away when the economy got better.
Radio and television took hold of America, and by the 1950s it was predicted that people would watch TV and not use public libraries. Actually, television partnered with libraries to promote reading and research in conjunction with TV.
The demise of the children’s book was predicted in the 1970s due to cost of production of color plates, and people would quit using libraries.
The explosion of media formats in the 1980s and 1990s suggested that public libraries would end as it would be easier for people to buy their information.
And of course, the invention of the public-usable Internet in the 1990s would cause people to use computers exclusively, and combined with eBooks will mark the death of public libraries.
These predictions failed to recognize that the free-Internet really didn’t exist, and that people have always purchased books and information in addition to using public libraries.
Add to that the services that have been passed to the public library by other institutions and agencies that no longer exist, I think the public library will continue to be part of our society.
The other factor that is often missed in the “future of public libraries” discussion is the fact that our role has not changed in the 200 years of the American public library; to provide information to the public.
In addition, public libraries have the flexibility to change as times go by; we do the same thing that Andrew Carnegie professed but have new tools to perform our task.
Many years ago, I was working in the Local History/Genealogy Department when a woman asked me for a book she had used many years before. She couldn’t remember the title or author, but said that “it was a large volume, very dark in color.”
From the description of the information in the book, I was able to match her request with a volume that had the very information that she desired, but the outside of the book was “red” in color. It had been rebound by a commercial bindery since she had last used it.
And that is today’s public library, the same book and information, just wrapped in a new cover.