Friday, May 27, 2011

The Ghosts of Libraries Past, Present, and Future; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the New Technology

It's a closely guarded secret that your humble scribe--The Man in the Purple Shirt--is a bit of a Luddite in his personal life. You have probably already read in this blog about EnvisionWare's forthcoming Library of the Future, but did you know about the Library of the Past?

The Man in the Purple Shirt's "Library of the Past" (Yes, those are vinyl records)
That's the edifice I've had constructed in my home that houses my record and book collections (which happen to include more than a few items picked up at Friends of the Library sales around the country). Officially, my wife and I have declared a moratorium on the collection as our shelves are now full, but...if you work at a library and are currently weeding any old volumes of Faulkner or Hemingway from your stacks, I'd like to hear from you!

Yes, I'm a fan of old-fashioned, handsomely made books. They're my way of unplugging after working with computers all day. But I hasten to add here that I speak only for myself in this matter, not EnvisionWare, Inc. One of my colleagues at the company acquired an Amazon Kindle a few years ago; like me, he travels often and reads often, but in his case he has found the e-reader to be quite conducive to his on-the-go lifestyle. I, on the hand, seem to always be lugging several heavy books wherever I go. Which of us is wiser?

It goes without saying that this is an interesting time for public libraries. The general population is only now beginning to catch on to the fact that libraries are no longer the quiet, nearly empty book-stuffed mausoleums they once were. Several times in recent years, I've encountered families who, due to the recession, have turned to the library as a cheap way to meet their entertainment needs. They are always astonished to see the number of DVDs and CDs on offer, not to mention the banks of computers available for public internet use. "Wow," their expressions seem to say, "the library is"

So where is this world of libraries ultimately headed, and what place do physical books have in it? EnvisionWare is officially neutral on that question. We offer top-to-bottom RFID solutions that enable more efficient circulation of physical media--which include books. But if all physical media where to go away tomorrow, we would no doubt be equally involved in whatever would take its place. We respond to the needs of libraries, plain and simple.

You'll hear lots of pundits predicting the imminent end of the book as we know it, but their words are meaningless; the survival or demise of physical books is determined solely by the public's needs. If you want to "save" physical books (as I do), keep reading them, keep buying them, and keep checking them out from your library. E-readers are not the enemy; I've come to believe that they can peacefully coexist with my beloved books. The real enemy is--and has always been--not reading at all. That is the real sign of the decline of the world as we know it.

It's useful to remember that books themselves are technology. The famed Library of Alexandria was filled floor-to-ceiling with scrolls. And before that people used animal skins, and before that it was cave walls. We move and adapt. It's what we're good at. And we choose what we wish to keep and what we wish to discard.

I have observed exciting and profound changes at public libraries over the past decade. They have become thriving community centers, outstanding resources for job seekers, and safe and enriching environments for teenagers who might otherwise be getting in trouble. Your local library is a cost-effective alternative to Netflix, a great place to peruse magazines and discover new music, and still the best place in town to load up on books for the rainy weekend.

EnvisionWare is committed to these institutions that do so much to put knowledge in the hands of the people. We serve the libraries and the libraries serve you. So, ultimately, it is you who will map their, and our, future.

I've already got my "Library of the Past"; in fact, I'm sitting across from it as I write these words. But now I'm genuinely excited about the Library of the Future. Are you?