Today’s Thought: The future of the public library

As a roaming consultant, I often do my best thinking (or my writing) at the local public library. Each time I sit in front of a stack of books, I wonder about what will become of these community hubs in the coming years. After all, the usage of traditional books is decreasing rapidly.

(I have also been a frequent user of public libraries since I was a kid. Especially when I studied at Vassar College, which is considered one of the nicer ones in the country. I also like the scene in the movie, Beautiful Mind, when Nash writes mathematical equations in chalk on a window pane).


According to this week’s Pew Research Study on Libraries, Patrons and eBooks “12% of Americans ages 16 and older who read e-books say they have borrowed an e-book from a library in the past year.” I assume this number will probably more than double in the next year or so. Some big obstacles include:

  • people are not aware that library lend out ebooks
  • Some of the most avid library users report they are going to library branches less and using the library website more for book and audio downloads. Additionally, patrons’ browsing is moving from in-library catalogs to online searches of library websites. As a result, “routine” traditional library interactions between patrons and librarians are receding in some places as interactions shift to online communications and downloads. (Pew Research)
  • some parents are concerned about using potentially dirty or used books, so they don’t even use the library (my opinion)
  • libraries tend to attract older and young folks and not so much 25-45 year olds, the sweet spot for the adoption of new technologies

The first point is really interesting because most libraries do lend out ebooks. Many people are not tapped into all the great things a library offers, especially when it comes to ebooks. Some of Pew’s findings include:

  • 58% of all library card holders say they do not know if their library provides e-book lending services.
  • 55% of all those who say the library is “very important” to them say they do not know if their library lends e-books.
  • 53% of all tablet computer owners say they do not know if their library lends e-books.
  • 48% of all owners of e-book reading devices such as original Kindles and NOOKs say they do not know if their library lends e-books.
  • 47% of all those who read an e-book in the past year say they do not know if their library lends e-books.
One of the challenges people face is the list of available titles is smaller and/or a long waiting list. While it might cut into a publisher’s profits, I am not sure why they wouldn’t want to get rid of the waiting lists by providing unlimited e-inventory to libraries. There’s definitely a difference between owning and renting a book title, so it would be interesting to see how much that would impact their sales. Or maybe you make it a pay-to-rent for a week model! Or maybe there’s more value add (content) if you end up buying the book. Maybe ebook borrowers end up buying books. Among those who read e-books, 41% of those who borrow e-books from libraries purchased their most recent e-book.
People definitely want to learn more about how to rent eBooks:
  • 46% of those who do not currently borrow e-books from libraries say they would be “very” or “somewhat” likely to borrow an e-reading device that came loaded with a book they wanted to read.
  • 32% of those who do not currently borrow e-books say they would be “very” or “somewhat” likely to take a library class on how to download e-books onto handheld devices.
  • 32% of those who do not currently borrow e-books say they would be “very” or “somewhat” likely to take a course at a library in how to use an e-reader or tablet computer.

Why is this important? In a Free-Agent economy, it’s important to find alternative places to work besides to rented office space, Starbucks or the back room in an apartment. I am always surprised that traveling 1099ers do not use the library more.

Something I have wondered about — especially when I am at the Presidio Library in San Francisco – what libraries will look like in the coming years. And what role will they play in society. Will they become more like a Starbucks without the coffee? Personally, I would take our local library and do just that. Make it a place for people to study, work and hang out. After all, most of the hard cover books I take out are sent from other libraries and I just use my local library as a place to pick it up.

Libraries like our US Postal Service need to change.





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