Farewell, Libraries?

By Jones, Malcolm | Newsweek, August 5, 2010 | Go to article overview

Farewell, Libraries?


Jones, Malcolm, Newsweek


Byline: Malcolm Jones

Amazon's report that e-books are outselling hardcovers means book collections--personal and public--are about to get a drastic makeover.

Amazon.com's recent announcement that sales of e-books at the online megastore had overtaken sales of hardcover books came as no surprise. It had to happen sometime. But the news did conjure quite an interesting mental image: libraries that from now on will look smaller and less crowded. For the moment, let's not argue with the proposition that people will read as much as they ever have, no matter whether they read an actual book or a book on a screen. The habits of readers may not change (if anything, people may read more, or at least buy more--several stories have quoted e-book owners who say they buy more titles for their e-readers than they did when they were buying hardcover books). But if readers aren't changing, their environments will. Rooms that once held books will--well, whatever they hold from now on, it won't be books. Or not as many books. Theoretically, your space will be more spare, more serenely uncluttered. That's the theory, at least. My experience is that stuff expands to fill the space available. But you can dream.

All of this has already happened big time in the music business, where downloads have gradually but surely replaced CDs. I don't know how many people I've overheard crowing because they managed to transfer their entire music collections onto their computers. All those CDs taking up space on the wall--gone. All those CDs that travel from car to kitchen to bedroom to living room, with the CD and the case getting separated somewhere along the way--a problem no more in the digital age. From now on, we'll own what might be described as the idea of stuff, since the actual physical things--records, tapes, photographs, CDs, and now books--have been as good as vaporized, with the information contained therein stored away on a hard drive.

This, of course, is merely collateral damage in the digital revolution, if damage it is. There's as yet no way to tell if this transition is good, bad, both, or neither, but surely the absence of a physical library, be it musical or literary, marks a fundamental shift in the way we live and think about things. In music, for example, the rise of iTunes, Pandora, YouTube, and all the other online music purveyors has quickly eroded our devotion to the long-playing album as the principal means of organizing music. After a half century of neglect, the lowly single is back on top. Most immediately this has repercussions for artists, maybe not so much for the people who buy their music. But who knows?

With books, the absence of packaging does nothing to the contents. I can buy a hardcover copy of Moby-Dick or download it onto an e-reader, and Melville is still Melville. But I grew up loving Rockwell Kent's illustrations of that novel, and later Barry Moser's. It's hard to think of the book without them. …

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