Although I had no idea, I had just run smack dab into the future. The year was 1989, and I'd just landed my dream job working in the library at San Diego State University. I could hardly wait to start, dreaming of the hushed tones, the high windows that opened up onto the expanse of concrete campus below. The gentle crinkling of the bindings opening and closing, the floors and yards and miles of books, endless books.
And then work began. Sure, I got to shelve, but most of the time my co-workers and I sat behind a computer screen. The mission: to painstakingly type in the contents of each and every library catalog index card onto a database. The 21st century was calling, and like thousands of libraries across the country, ours was entering the digital age.
I finally did too. About a month ago, I stopped catering to my anti-tech tendencies and bought an e-reader. Boy, am I glad. My middle-aged eyes are thanking me, for sure, but it's much more than that. Although I've always loved the sight, smell and sound of a book, there's nothing like toting ten, twenty, fifty books under your arm in the form of a hand-sized tablet. So far, the cost of an ebook has been far less than a new hardcover.
Since the Sony Librie e-reader hit the market back in 2004, reading has never been the same. How have libraries responded to the new technology?
Quite well, according to recent reports, but the change hasn't been without its glitches. Library shutdowns in response to the Covid-19 Pandemic cast a light on an ongoing challenge: procuring the digital rights to book titles. According to a 2020 article in Wired magazine, publisher's began to panic, fearing that the unprecedented demand for library ebooks would outstrip that of physical books and cut deeply into company profits ("Publisher's Worry as Ebooks Fly Off of Libraries' Virtual Shelves", Aarian Marshall).
And that demand skyrocketed almost as soon as the shutdowns began. Library checkout of ebooks increased during the first few months of the Pandemic by 52 percent . To top it off, a recent survey of U.S. and Canadian librarians found that one-third were planning to spend less on physical books and more on digital material.
Steve Potash, CEO of OverDrive, a company that helps libraries and businesses create their own digital collections, was encouraged by the publishing houses' recent change of heart. He credited a number of publishers who, in response to the Pandemic, began offering titles at reduced cost, or in some cases, for free to schools and libraries. Quoted in a Publisher's Weekly article ("Is the Covid-19 Crisis a Watershed Moment for for Library Ebooks", Publisher's Weekly, March, 2020), Potash predicted that, as libraries expand their digital collections, this shape-shifting event could potentially impact "tens of millions" of new digital library users: "I think digital library lending and services are being elevated to a new plateau."
So if libraries are now keeping pace with the desire for digital content, does this translate to increased patronage? Not necessarily. The eleven librarians chosen to attend the international Next Library Conference in 2017 found that it takes more than high-tech tools to keep libraries relevant. The consensus was this: libraries need to be more than just repositories of information; they need to be places of "experimentation, innovation, education, recreation and relaxation"("Five Lessons for Libraries Looking to Innovate in the 21st Century", Knight Foundation, 2017).