The hallmark of public libraries — the printed book, bound by covers and centuries of page-turning — is being shoved aside by digital doppelgangers.
Around the country, libraries are slashing their print collections in favor of e-books, prompting battles between library systems and print purists, including not only the pre-pixel generation but digital natives who represent a sizable portion of the 1.5 billion library visits a year and prefer print for serious reading.
Some of the clashes have been heated. In New York, protesters outside the city’s main branch have shouted: “Save the stacks! Save the stacks!” In Northern Virginia, the Fairfax County library system chief recently mused that the Friends of the Library were no longer friends — a feud fueled by outrage over a print collection that has shrunk by more than 300,000 books since 2009. The drop in the District is even more dramatic: Nearly 1 million books have vanished since 2009.
“To say Gutenberg’s days are over is a terrible mistake,” said Dennis Hays, a former U.S. ambassador and chairman of Fairfax Library Advocates, a group of residents at war with library officials. “Nothing can take the place of a book.”
Librarians are feeling the heat.
“We’re caught between two worlds,” said Darrell Batson, director of the Frederick County Public Libraries system in Maryland, where the print collection has fallen 20 percent since 2009. “But libraries have to evolve or die. We’re probably the classic example of Darwinism.”
The evolution of information flow has forced their hands, librarians say. Just as books advanced from slabs of parchment to paperbacks, they are transforming again, from paper to pixels. With Plato only a download away, libraries have lost their monopoly on knowledge.
In evolving, librarians are steering tight acquisition budgets to e-books, which are more expensive than print because, among other reasons, publishers fear large databases of free e-books will hurt their business. E-book spending has grown from 1 percent of library budgets to 7 percent, according to a Library Journal survey. One library in San Antonio went much further, opening a bookless, all-digital branch called BiblioTech.
Meanwhile, print book budgets are slipping fast — from 67 percent of acquisitions in 2008 to 59 percent in 2015 — with reference titles bearing the biggest cuts so far. Asked why, Batson turned to his computer, opened his browser and typed www.google.com. “That’s why,” he said.
With the newfound physical space, libraries are adding rooms for community meetings, hacker spaces with 3-D printers, and entrepreneur centers to help small businesses. Libraries in the District and in Silver Spring have genius bars to help patrons with devices.
In the process, centuries-old library traditions have been abandoned.
Recent branch renovations in the region have (gasp) grouped fiction and nonfiction titles together. There is a lot less shushing: Instead of discouraging noise throughout the stacks, libraries now set aside special areas for quiet contemplation. Want to bring your lunch? No problem.
To library futurists, this is progress.
“For a lot of people, libraries represent a certain kind of quiet, a certain kind of place, a certain kind of book in large numbers,” said Matthew Battles, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and co-author of “Library Beyond the Book.” “These are beautiful ideas and ideals. But they demand reinterpretation and cultivation from generation to generation.”
To library purists, this is nonsense.
“I get the sense that a lot of people have a feeling that tech has just moved along, that books are these old-fashioned things, that everything is going to be on the Internet, that a Kindle and Google is all you need,” Hays said. “But getting reliable information is a constant challenge today. Libraries help people find the credible information they need.”
The purists say the futurists are pushing budget-busting e-books when large swaths of society still want print, particularly as research emerges showing print provides a more immersive, less distracting reading experience.
They also cite sales data showing that e-reader and e-book sales have leveled off and argue that the next generation of library patrons still strongly prefers print.
One survey of readers 18 to over 68 found that just 5 percent of millennials read only e-books. Twenty-one percent of the millennials said they read more hard copy than e-books, and 34 percent reported that they only read print.
However, some 26 percent of millennials did say they read about the same amount of print and e-books, which librarians take as a sign that they are headed in the right direction. Library officials also point to studies showing that children enjoy reading e-books and that, in some cases, the technology increases excitement about books.
Chrissy Cahill, 33, disagrees. Visiting the Reston library in Fairfax with her 2-year-old son, Cahill said her generation still values print, even though tablets and mobile phones dominate other aspects of their lives. She left with a stack of children’s books.
“I’m old-fashioned when it comes to books,” she said. “When I think of a library, I think of books.”
Inside the Reston branch, many shelves were empty. Other shelves had just a few books, arranged that way, critics said, so that they would not look even more barren. Library officials disputed that, saying shelves were constantly in flux and that “many branches do and should leave open areas that provide visual relief in order to facilitate browsing and marketing of the collection.”
In dealing with budgetary forces and the pressures of the future, administrators in Fairfax have shifted the collection to a floating system — meaning the books no longer live at branches but wherever patrons return them.
Other libraries around the country cutting print books have moved to similar systems. Critics say floating collections make it difficult to quickly get books. But library officials say it is a way for them to make the overall print collection larger for everyone as money shifts to electronic resources.
“We’ve always been in the knowledge business,” said Samuel Clay, Fairfax’s longtime library director. “Now we’re in the connection business. We’re going to connect you to everything you need.”
Some print advocates say they are willing to give it a try.
In the District, where the collection of print books has fallen 39 percent since 2009, Susan Haight said she’s found that her generation — she’s 66 — is willing to give e-books a chance.
“Libraries are leading my generation to this stuff,” said Haight, who is president of the Federation of Friends of the D.C. Public Library. “They have a responsibility to do this, and they want to help people with this.”
Libraries also see this moment as a way to reconnect with people who stopped visiting. They now consider their Web sites branches, counting log-ins as library visits. And to drive foot traffic — and, in some cases, revenue — they are reallocating square footage once used for books as hacker spaces or meeting rooms for rental.
Surveys have shown deep division over these moves. Thirty-six percent of people polled by Pew said libraries should definitely not move books to make room for meeting and hacker spaces. Twenty percent said they should. “The responses,” Pew said, were “the most divided verdict we got in the range of changes in the library world that we probed.”
Kimberly Mellon, a Frederick County community activist, recently used the Urbana branch’s meeting room to hold a gathering of citizens fighting a measure in front of the County Council.
“My personal visits to the library these past few years have been primarily for the purpose of attending these meetings,” she said. “Each visit, I look around a bit wistfully, reminding myself to come back to further enjoy the library’s many events, books and amenities.”
But she added, “I have yet to make time for that promise.”
Some find the new amenities both comforting and unnerving.
Looking around the renovated Woodrow Wilson Library in Fairfax County, with its charming earth tones, comfy chairs and multiple meeting rooms, Melissa Johnson, 58, said, “This is really lovely.”
The meeting rooms, she said, were a good idea: “There has to be a place for people to come together.”
But what about e-books?
“I want to a hold a book,” she said. “A real book.”