Magazine article American Libraries

Booking to the Future: Paper or Electronic? Futurists Have Been Pushing One Option for Years-But Do We Have to Choose?

Magazine article American Libraries

Booking to the Future: Paper or Electronic? Futurists Have Been Pushing One Option for Years-But Do We Have to Choose?

Article excerpt

It's no secret that librarians like books. For decades, those pages sandwiched between rectangles of cardboard have been the primary reason librarians sought and secured employment. As methods of communication and information sharing evolve, however, books have begun to transform, sparking a debate not only among book publishers and readers but librarians as well.

In response to a hot-button issue in the library profession nationwide, the Library Research Service (LRS), a unit of the Colorado State Library, conducted a survey to check current library professionals' predictions for the future of the paper book. It's probably no surprise that respondents thought the trend would be toward electronic formats. But for a variety of reasons, paper books refuse to die a quiet death.


In December 2009, LRS posted an eight-question survey titled "The Future of the Book" on the homepage of its website and sent the link to multiple state, regional, and national library-related discussion lists. Survey questions asked respondents whether they owned an e-reader; whether or when they thought paper books would disappear; what format they currently used and expected to use in 10 years to read fiction, nonfiction, and textbooks; and what they predicted libraries would circulate in 10 years. Respondents were offered 2-5 answer options to these questions.

Over the course of a month, 1,326 respondents, representing all 50 states and 24 countries, completed the survey. A third of respondents worked in public libraries, a quarter in academic, and almost one out of five in school libraries. More than seven out of 10 survey respondents left comments to an open-ended question about their thoughts on the future of the book.

LRS staff evaluated the comments--ranging in tone from philosophical to passionate to practical--and collectively identified the six most frequently mentioned factors in the paper-versus-electronic-format debate: the existence of multiple formats, technological advantages, emotional/aesthetic appeal, content, cost, and time/generational change. After coding each comment according to which topics it addressed, LRS staff were able to analyze how the comments related to other survey responses.

Overall, almost two out of three (63%) respondents claimed that paper books would never disappear, and half that number (33%) predicted their demise in from 21 to 100 or more years (see Chart 1). The remaining 4% anticipated that paper books would vanish within the next two decades. These numbers shifted when the 16% of respondents who reported owning an e-reader were singled out: E-reader owners were nearly three times as likely as non-owners to predict that paper books would disappear by 2030.


In 20 years              4%
In 21-50 years          11%
In 51-100 years         11%
In more than 100 years  11%
Never                   63%

Note: Table made from pie chart.

Despite the overwhelming conviction that paper books would not become extinct in the immediate future, the question remains as to what extent libraries will circulate them in, say, 10 years. Of the entire survey group, 43% of respondents predicted that libraries would circulate about the same amount of physical and electronic materials, and slightly fewer (39%) anticipated more electronic than physical. Less than half that percentage (16%) thought physical materials would continue to be more common. The prediction that libraries would increasingly favor electronic resources did not extend to a sentiment that libraries were growing irrelevant or would become completely virtual; less than 1% of survey respondents thought libraries would not exist or would circulate only electronic materials in 10 years (see Chart 2).


More Physical    16%
Same Amount      43%
More Electronic  39%
Only Electronic   1%
No Libraries      1%

Survey respondents' predictions of their personal format choices also revealed a substantial drift toward electronic. …

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