The Death of Libraries

by Mike Shea on 12 May 2011

30 Second Summary

Almost overnight book publishing moved from shipping a limited quantity of physical books to locations all over the world to digital distribution of data across the internet with a material cost as close to zero as you can get. For five thousand years libraries built themselves around the physical possession of books. What will happen to libraries when the medium is stripped from the physical media? What should become of it? Perhaps they should become free internet cafes with uncensored fast connections to the web available to anyone who wants them. Perhaps they become a resource of librarians who help people find information they're looking for. What they shouldn't do is become virtual representations of their former selves. Outdated systems and models need to die to be replaced by those that fit the new world in which we live.

From books to Kindle in 30 days

In thirty days I went from swearing that I only wanted archival quality hardback books in my library to swearing off physical books completely for the the Kindle. I didn't expect to get there so easily or so fast but here I am. I won't buy a book unless I'm buying it for my Kindle. I no longer see myself as responsible for archiving the world's knowledge. I know a digital dark age may come.

Barnes and Noble realizes that digital books are the future. They built the Nook and set up the store. From my own experience selling digital books, it doesn't appear to be going anywhere. I've sold hundreds of copies of my books on the Kindle and not a single copy of anything on the Nook. Same goes for Apple's iBookstore where I've sold less than a dozen books.

The one thing the Nook has going for it is some sort of deal with local libraries where you can check out books as though you were checking them out physically at the library.

The broken business model of libraries

But wait just a minute. What sense does that make? As far as I can tell, these library check out systems require a link to your local library and have a limited number of copies to lend out. But we're talking about an unlimited resource here. The cost for me to distribute a single copy of my book or 100,000 copies is almost zero. I don't have to print them. I don't have to physically ship them. Bandwidth is cheap. So what is this fake limit that a library puts on them? As far as I can tell, the only purpose is to make it hard to get these free copies.

As a guy who now makes money selling books, I'm glad there's some sort of limit or we're all giving away all our material for free. That doesn't make much sense. It took time and effort to make these books, they shouldn't just be given away.

I'm all for giving away free samples. My favorite feature of the Kindle is the ability to get the first 50 or so pages of any novel I want to read. If I don't like it, I haven't paid anything. If I do like it, I get to try it out and buy it when I'm already committed. It's a perfect model.

The only way people have been looking at how libraries fit in this new digital distribution system is as they have always been. They're imposing fake limitations both in tying it to a local library and in limiting the number of available copies because that's the way it's always been. That's a stupid way to look at it. HBO is doing the same idiotic thing with their iPad client. Sure, you can watch Game of Thrones on your iPad, as long as you have cable and a subscription to HBO. That's making me buy a saddle, stable, and a buggy whip in order to drive a car. Trying to force the model backwards hurts everyone.

What libraries should become

There is a real need for libraries in our communities, not as warehouses of old dusty books, but as access to information for everyone for free. Libraries should become protected internet access areas. They should have access to pay services and uncensored connections to the internet. They should help people learn how to use the net safely and productively. They should have internet specialists on hand to help people learn how to tie into this new mechanism. If libraries are going to go digital, they should be access points, not virtualized models of the old ways of doing things.

Watching old gods die

I am always fascinated by watching the titans and old gods die. Circuit City, Borders, the RIAA, the MPAA; I love watching these behemoths fail to keep up with our changing world. I would never want to be in charge of a large company. Any company with more than 100 people simply cannot change fast enough to keep up with the evolution of our world. Giant book publishers now have to compete with assholes like me who can publish books in our basements while they're still paying dudes in trucks to ship pallets of paper around the country. Sometimes it can take a long time for these gods to die. The movie industry still manages to stay afloat, as does the music industry, but they kick and scream every step of the way into the new digital world. They can't last forever. And for every industry that can't manage to keep up?

Let them crash.