Apparently, the New York Public Library has spent $1million USD on ebooks and is planning a major re-design of the old building which will create large, airy spaces, a cafe, and remove old and hardly-used books to stacks in the basement.
Closer to home, Liverpool Central Library is already undergoing a major structural overhaul, which promises to look amazing once finished and I'm looking forward to seeing it re-open.
Wirral Libraries are also changing. In their draft strategy for the future, they write, "The Government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport quotes a decline in the number of visits to library premises of around 25% over a 16 year period, and a steady decline in the loans of adults’ books over the decade prior to 2008/9 by more than a third."
It goes on to define the library service as: "4.1 - Wirral library is a friendly, accessible place that provides a safe, trusted and welcoming resource aimed at meeting the needs of the local community. Also: "5.1 - Its focus is on providing information, knowledge and reading for self improvement and enjoyment."
When the concept of libraries was first developed, the majority of people could not afford to buy many - or perhaps any - books. Access to information was limited by wealth and opportunity, but this simply isn't the case now. Most people in the Western world have internet access of some kind. Has any period of known history had so much information and entertainment so easily available to so many people? Have you stopped to consider how fortunate you are, because of this?
Therefore, the urge to borrow well-fingered paperbacks whose tea-stained, crumb-lined pages emit the musty fragrances of total strangers' domestic charm has lost its appeal. A library now needs a catalogue of ebooks far more than it needs new paperbacks.
Libraries will continue to be repositories of antique books, and the world's store of antique books will continue to provide historical relevance and, upon re-sale, revenue. The role of large format books, such as for highly illustrated works, seems likely to remain secure for the foreseeable future. However, as paperbacks gradually give way to ebooks, and as more old books become available as ebooks, will the way we view collections of newer books change? Just as the under-25s tend not to buy CDs but to opt for digital downloads, will those familiar shelves of curling, yellowing but beloved paperbacks go the same way at 12-track tapes and VCR cassettes? I strongly suspect they will.
Are public libraries likely to become community hubs, with a cafe, computer suite and a museum of old and valuable books which people peer at through glass cabinets before downloading a pristine digital version? Will library staff cease to laboriously replace returned books to the correct shelves, day in, day out, and instead become ereader engineers, social club organisers, and mediators between the public and various social services?
If the latter sounds far-fetched, I should point out the Wirral's library staff will soon be running the council's One Stop Shops, where people pay council taxes and apply for many state benefits and rebates, and discuss their state pensions. So a library user will go from borrowing the latest bodice-ripper to discussing private finance with the same member of staff, and all at the same counter with a queue of other library users waiting right behind. It sounds far from ideal.
So, how often do you visit a library? Do you borrow books, or do you visit it for social reasons, or do you make use of their computer suite? How do you view the changing role of libraries?