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Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Books, Libraries and the Future

When I was very young, I used to ride my bike about a mile or so to the Phoenix Public Library to check out books. I usually ended up going to the library about twice a week. The procedure for checking out a library book was simple, you signed your name on the card in the front of the book. The cards for books that were checked out, were then put back in the book when it was checked in and your name was crossed out. As I got older, I could see who checked out the books before me and I could tell if I had checked the book out before (for especially forgettable books).

Going to the library has become a major activity for our family over the years. During the time my own children were growing up, we took all of them regularly, checking out stack of books on each visit. The procedure for checking out books was automated slightly, when I go a library card with a metal tab with a raised number. The library equipment would run the card through a roller that would imprint the card for the book. Later, the system got more automated with library cards that were scanned by a laser bar code, but we still had a person checking each book and entering the books into a file. The next step was to have all the books with barcodes and scanned by the laser.

Just lately the large check out desk in our local public library disappeared with all the employees and became a reading area. Now all of the books are checked out by putting your card on a sensor, once the card is read, you can put your books on the sensor one-by-one and the sensor reads a microchip in the book and checks the book out to you. You get a printed list of books you have checked out.

Underlying these changes in way books are checked out, there is a more fundamental change occurring. I was surprised to see the latest changes in our public library for a simple reason, I hadn't been to the library for a long time. The reasons involve a radical change in the way books are created, sold and read that is impacting the traditional library. I no longer go so regularly to my local public library for a number of reasons, some of them involve the changes in the book industry others have to do with content. To be blunt, our local library does not have any books I am interested in reading. For example, I would like to read a book about Adobe Photoshop CS5. I look in the local libraries online catalogs and discover that they have several books on the subject and all of them are checked out. There is no way I can look at the books and see if I really want to get into my car, drive to the library and look at the book. I could put the book on hold, but then I still don't know if the book is what I want.

What is the alternative? I could buy the book. But this is a real problem. I look on Amazon.com for the book and find that most of the books are around $25 to $30 each. But the advantage is that I can preview portions of the book and decided if I am interested. I really don't want to spend all that money on a book that will go out of date almost instantly, in addition, I don't have any more room for books in my house, they are already stacked ten deep or doubled on the shelves.

Now we get to the real reason I haven't been to the library, I can buy an electronic version of the book and read it on my iPhone, iPad or whatever. What's more this works not only for current electronic topics, but for old genealogy books also. That same book that was about $30 for a print copy is about seven dollars cheaper for the downloadable copy. But do I really want to buy the book? So now I move over to Google Books. I use Google Books to look for my Photoshop CS5 book. Here is is again for about $25 to $30 and I could go around the circle again and find it in a library, but I check the what it would cost to add it to my Google eBooks. Hmm. about the same price as Amazon.com for an electronic download. Do I go back to the library and put my name on the waiting list?

Wait, there are more options. OpenLibrary.org is one. Maybe I would have more luck if I wasn't looking for a book about Photoshop CS5? What about a surname book on the Tanners. OpenLibrary.org strikes out on that one. Back to Google eBooks, but this is not helpful. A search in Google Books, not the eBook program, gives me several options. But I am essentially back where I started, the library.

What does this exercise tell me? Libraries are far from dead. If I wanted a best seller or a current electronics book right now, I would have to buy either the paper or electronic version. If I want to wait a while for a copy, I can put one of the copies at the library on hold. I might also be able to see a preview of the book on Amazon.com or Google Books before I put it on hold. Will all the eBook readers and tablet computers change this way of distributing books? Maybe, but not too quickly. I do understand that my local library is considering checking books out on a Kindle reader, but then again the issue is whether of not they have the book I am interested in reading.

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