We’re impressed that the Paul Sawyier Public Library is already contemplating expansion just six years after it moved down Wapping Street into a sprawling new base of operations. We’re even more impressed that library board member Mark Overstreet believes a three-story, $3.75 million addition can be built and staffed without any increase in the library tax rate – which the board has lowered for four years in a row. It’s also noteworthy that this county, with less than 50,000 population, has 36,000 library card holders who make good use of the facility’s services.
However, stacking up more bricks and mortar seems out of step with the decline of libraries’ traditional role as capacious repositories of the printed word. The State Journal’s Katheran Wasson reported Paul Sawyier’s overall circulation has increased 40 percent since its new building opened. Still, twilight time could be at hand for the longstanding dominance of printed books. Walk into the local library and you’ll still see plenty of books on the shelves, but extensive racks of DVDs and banks of computers where patrons can surf the Internet are encroaching. Users can also tap into the library’s Wi-Fi system to download books to an e-reader or tablet computer.
While a visit to the library is a joy for book lovers, it’s also a bit of an inconvenience. You have to go, make your selections, then come back within three weeks to return them. Digital technology has the potential of rendering that chore obsolete. By using a computer to link with Kentucky Libraries Unbound via the library’s website (www.pspl.org) you can download up to 10 books, audios and videos which automatically disappear from your computer when time expires, making the return trip unnecessary. The digital revolution reduces library storage needs because the only space e-books take up is cyberspace.
A recent nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center found 62 percent of respondents over 16 years old, including some who own computers, didn’t even know their library offered this service. The survey further revealed library card holders use technology more than other people, read more books of all kinds and are receptive to buying or borrowing e-books.
Digital developments portend big changes for libraries. Some of the most enthusiastic patrons told Pew’s pollsters they’re visiting library branches less often nowadays and instead using library websites to check out books, videos and audios.
As convenient as electronic books may be for readers, their advent is less comforting to publishers who are in the business of selling reading material, not letting you read it for free. Randall Stross, a California author/professor writing for The New York Times, reported some publishing houses find the online process too easy. One publisher told him the free circulation of printed books is less problematic because the hassle of having to pack volumes back to the library provides an incentive to buy instead. Some are limiting the number of loans permitted on each e-book sold to libraries, although smaller publishers welcome the exposure lending enables.
Both librarians and patrons told the Pew researchers they expect libraries in coming years will have fewer printed books and more public meeting and learning spaces. More than 20,000 people attended 740 library programs last year at Paul Sawyier, which hopes an addition will provide space for bigger groups, art exhibits and performances.
What could be less prominent in the library of the future is the ink-and-paper foundation on which it was all built. Who knows? Someday, the printed books that survive might be displayed as no more than quaint relics of a bygone era when readers could enjoy literary creations without having to operate any high-tech devices.