Library of the future: Despite Digital Age, expanded facility still likely to be utilized

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of four stories centering on the proposal to expand the Lawrence Public Library. In the Nov. 2 election, voters will be asked to approve $18 million for the library, an amount that would be paid back through property taxes during the next 20 years.

With the growing popularity of new technologies for downloading and reading books and literature, coupled with the ease of online research, one may wonder what the future holds for public libraries.

The Reference Department, these days, may be the scariest section of Lawrence Public Library — at least for supporters of a 20,000-square-foot expansion of the library.

No, it’s not the librarian who can diagram the Dewey decimal system, or the patron who seemingly never runs out of arcane questions about where to find this or that.

In fact, it is not anything that exists in the reference department that causes unease. It is everything that doesn’t.

Does anybody remember the shelves and shelves of the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature that once existed in reference departments everywhere? If you were born in the Internet Age, probably not. One word — Google — has replaced quite a few dead trees in library reference sections.

“There are certain parts of a library’s collections that are smaller than they used to be,” said Jim Minges, director of the Lawrence-based Northeast Kansas Library System, which provides support to about 120 libraries in the area. “That will be true in the future too.”

As voters in the Nov. 2 election prepare to decide the fate of an $18 million proposal to expand the library and its parking, the question of just how much space a library will need in an increasingly digital age hangs heavy.

With an increase in the popularity of e-books, will the space needed for nonfiction bookshelves decrease? How about the fiction section? The children’s section?

Just how confident should Lawrence voters be that the library of the future will need the type of space that library leaders of the present say is critical?

“That probably is the key question of our discussion,” said Library Director Bruce Flanders.

The bygone book?

The answer to the question likely depends on how the publishing world — and ultimately consumers — answer their own questions about the future of the paper book.

The questions about the future of paper books are getting louder all the time as big-money promoters like Amazon and Apple peddle e-books — books that can be electronically downloaded and read on a variety of devices.

According to the International Digital Publishing Forum, U.S. wholesale totals for e-books have grown from about $25 million in the first quarter of 2009 to about $90 million in the second quarter of 2010.

But Minges has heard about the demise of the book many times and is still waiting for it to happen.

“There’s still a good market for printed books,” Minges said. “For the foreseeable future, there are still large groups of people who prefer a paper book. That probably will decrease as technology increases.

“But that is not something a library can base its planning on at this point.”

Indeed, the Association of American Publishers estimates e-book sales to be only about 9 percent of the overall book market.

“There are changes that are happening,” said Mike Machell, chair of the Lawrence Public Library Board. “The board understands there is a challenge in figuring out the future of libraries. I can see the day where you go to the front desk and rent a Kindle or a device like that. But I also think there are individuals who want to hold and touch a real book, and that will be true for a long time to come.”

Rapid change

Mike Shatzkin — a 40-year veteran of the publishing industry and the CEO of New York-based Idea Logical Company — can’t help but see the e-book trend of today and think about 1995.

In 1995, Shatzkin was a speaker at a national publishing conference. His role on the panel was to be the “way out there guy,” the speaker who made bold predictions.

One of those was that in the next five years Internet usage would become ubiquitous. It is hard to imagine that prediction ever being way out there, but in 1995 Shatzkin said only about 16 percent of adults had Internet access and only 10 percent had used the Internet in the last month.

What sticks in his mind today is that those numbers are about where e-book uptake is currently.

In an e-mail interview with the Journal-World, Shatzkin said the e-book momentum will impact libraries, but figuring out exactly how is a tough task at the moment. But a couple points, he said, are clear.

“It is going to create a lot of confusion and ultimately require some changes in business models,” Shatzkin said.

The crystal ball is cloudy, in part, because there is a lot of uncertainty about how e-book publishers will work with libraries. Shatzkin said e-book publishers aren’t convinced that allowing libraries to loan out e-book downloads will be good for business. Some e-book publishers already are boycotting e-book lending programs, and Shatzkin said it is likely that libraries — or their patrons — will have to pay for each e-book download.

That may be a slice of salvation for paper books and their role in the library of the future. Library leaders said a major appeal of libraries always has been the ability to access information for free. Even though e-books may take over the retail market, it could be that library users will be content with paper books if it means they don’t have to pay anything for them.

“If everybody could afford to buy their own books, libraries would never have come into existence,” Minges said. “But that’s never been the case, and I don’t think it will be in the future.”

Shatzkin recently declared in The Wall Street Journal that bricks-and-mortar bookstores are living on borrowed time. He isn’t yet ready to go that far on the future of libraries.

But the times demand close attention, he said. Remember that earlier number regarding e-book sales comprising about 9 percent of the total market? That number looks more impressive when you know that it grew from just 3 percent 12 months earlier. In one year, e-books gobbled up 6 percent of the market, and that’s before digital giant Google has fully implemented its e-book strategy.

Shatzkin told The Wall Street Journal he’s confident that e-book sales will account for 25 percent of the market by 2013, which is about the time Lawrence’s expanded library would be ready to open.

“As bookstores continue to diminish, it might actually create a short-run ‘lift’ for libraries,” Shatzkin told the Journal-World. “I don’t think we’ll see change as profound in libraries over the next three years as for bookstores. But it will be a lot different 10 years from now.”

Community space

Of all the people you would expect to be bullish on the future of paper books, it would be Flanders, the director of the library. Flanders is bullish on reading, on information, on openness. But Flanders doesn’t try to convince anyone that traditional books will be here forever.

“Will the printed book go away?” Flanders asked in his basement library office. “I think, sad to say, at some point it will.”

But that thought doesn’t give Flanders any pause in asking voters to give him a larger library today. For one, Flanders said he’s confident printed books won’t disappear overnight. It easily could be 20 to 30 years before e-books push printed books to the side.

That’s important to remember, he said, because the library is overcrowded today. The size of the library hasn’t increased since 1972, even though the city’s population has more than doubled. Usage statistics of the library have been growing by 8 percent to 12 percent during the economic downturn.

The library has only 50 public access computers, even though state accreditation standards call for 150. The library turned away 200 requests for meeting room space last year, and the library’s public parking lot frequently turns away motorists who can’t find a place to park.

“This expansion won’t be wasted,” Flanders said.

He’s confident of that because he’s certain new technology won’t phase out people. Nearly every library leader interviewed said that the library of the future will become much more of a social center for the community.

They said that will be a space-intensive operation as more room will be needed for meeting space, computer space, and increasingly classroom space to teach patrons how to use all this new technology.

It will be a far cry from the days when Flanders remembers loaning out vinyl records at the library.

“But the one thing that hasn’t changed in all that time is that the library as a physical building continues to be important,” Flanders said. “I don’t think it will change because we’re very good at bringing people and information together.”