Inherit the Wind

There has been a conflation of blog posts and news stories that have really set my brain on fire this week, starting with an amazing post and comment discussion over at Walking Paper by Aaron Schmidt.  Then there was a quick email conversation with Michael Porter about the future of libraries if we don’t get ahead of the digital content curve and fast. On top of all that, someone pointed me to the  amazing “future of education” slideshow that I linked to yesterday by Dr. David Wiley. And now David Lee King puts together this amazing post about The New Normal, which links out to yet more stories about how the Music Industry and other once-solvent American institutions are undergoing change so radical as to make what comes out the other side almost unrecognizable.

In the midst of all this, at MPOW we are building a new library. So I’m thinking a LOT about several different time horizons. How do I plan for the realities of opening a new library in 2-3 years, but still allow for what I see as the likely outcomes for collections, services, and such in 5, or 10, or 20 years? This is a non-trivial problem…while no one can really tell whats coming, we have to remember that we are creating the future every day.

I agree with David on most of his points, but some of it bears repeating. Here are the sort of “talking points” that I’ve been rolling around in my head for the last month or so.

  • It isn’t likely that any major national newspaper will still be in print in 5 years.
  • Magazines will almost certainly follow…their collapse may be more slow motion because they have a different advertising base, but it will come.
  • Hardcover books are next to go. They are, in effect, just publicity engines.
  • After that, I’m betting that the slowly-dwindling dead-tree printing that is done becomes, essentially, a beskpoke process where there are paper-fetishists who purchase “books” for their sensory natures. But 99.9% of publications will be digital.

In addition to this 5-10 year spiral, we have the parallel procedures of the major content providers hoping to rent the future to us digitally. Ebook models have been unilaterally horrific, insisting on DRM that only punishes the hopeful consumers of the printed word. Digital video and audio on a consumer level are starting to come around, with the iTunes store being the last major consumer provider of digital audio to go DRM free. Consumer video is slowly moving from a subscription-subsidized with advertising model like cable to a free-streaming, a la carte, advertising based model like Hulu, but even there content creators are still fighting the inevitable by insisting that only they get to decide where media can live.

Content providers have insisted on holding tight to a model of selling their wares where content is scarce, connections are hard, and communication is expensive. We live in a world, however, where content is ubiquitous, connections are trivial, and communication is essentially free. These two worlds cannot coexist, and library vendors from Overdrive to OCLC must change their models. If they don’t, they will die as certainly as newspapers, magazines, the recording industry, television, and printed books.

Where does all of this leave the library? As the analog dies and the digital rises, unless we get in front of the content providers and claim our place at the digital table, we run the risk of being increasingly marginalized. There are places for us in this new world, but we need to make them, to carve them from the bytes. Stewart Brand’s comment that “information wants to be free” has never been more true, but just because it wants to be free doesn’t mean it doesn’t need caretakers.

The title of this post is inspired by a quote from Eric Hoffer, who said: “In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” In this brave new world, libraries and librarians must be learners. If not, we run the risk of inheriting not the information-rich digital world of the future, but the wind.

10 thoughts on “Inherit the Wind

  1. Great post! We’ve recently had discussions similar to this in our library. I am of course not the first one to say that we must change how we meet our users online – and quickly. I recently pulled statistics that show that 60% of our users are reaching all of our resources (SFX, Metalib, the catalog, the Website) from off-campus. That number will continue to rise. Unless we figure out how to invest wisely in our digital infrastructure, we’re going to be marginalized for sure…

  2. I always like to reassure ‘book people’ by telling them that the web will no more kill books than the Cassette or CD killed vinyl. And they say “But the CD did kill Vinyl!” The hell it did. The Vinyl scene is alive and well. It’s just a very, very different scene now that it’s not filled with ephemera… unrecognizable to a 70’s era LP mogul. I think printed paper will be the same way.

  3. Since I disagree with David on almost all the points, you won’t be surprised that I disagree with you as well–not that libraries shouldn’t be out in front on digital content, but that there’s some bizarre “death spiral” that inevitably sweeps away all physical content in the next 5 years. For one, that portion of the post could have been (and was) written five years, ten years, 15 years ago. It sweeps together vastly different media (in terms of funding, perception, etc.). (Since the U.S. only has two “national newspapers”–USA Today and Wall Street Journal–that’s the one prediction that could be plausible.)

    But, I suppose, “this time it’s different.” And calling those who don’t think the way you do “fetishists” is probably useful as well. Or not.

    You know what? My special issue on Library 2.0 and “Library 2.0″ appeared more than three years ago. How many “If we don’t do X within three to five years” from back then have come to pass?

  4. Walt: I actually think the term “paper-fetishists” is used not in the literal sense, but in the generalized sense of “enjoys the physical sensations associated with the paper book” and does, in fact, come up just about every time someone talks about ebooks. So yes, I do think that’s an appropriate description.

    I also believe, perhaps naively, that it is different this time. I didn’t say all physical media will go away in 5 years, but I do believe newspapers will. The NYT is almost bankrupt _now_. What I gave was what I think the procession of collapse will be, although I will grant the time-frame is somewhat fuzzy.

    Given Moore’s law, and the increasing costs of printing, do you _really_ think that there is a viable economic model for the printed word in 10-20 years? One that isn’t, as I said, a bespoke process?

  5. Nothing quite like considering the demise of all we know and hold dear. In my classes where we talk about definitions for magazines, journals, and newspapers, I almost always skip over the newspaper definition. Perhaps in ten years I will need start defining and discussing newspapers?

    Since you mentioned the NYT, I have been reading it again after several years of not reading it but I read it using their Times Reader software. I like it.

  6. Do I really think there’s a viable economic model for the printed word in 10-20 years? Sure. (The “increasing costs of printing” are to some extent a red herring–and, for books at least, printing/distribution is a minor portion of the price.)

    Can I prove print isn’t going away (and, for that matter, some physical film and music distribution media won’t go away) in the near future? Nope. But, you know, Moore’s Law has been around for decades, and people continue to change less rapidly than technology. I don’t see that changing.

  7. I always like to reassure 'book people' by telling them that the web will no more kill books than the Cassette or CD killed vinyl. And they say “But the CD did kill Vinyl!” The hell it did. The Vinyl scene is alive and well. It's just a very, very different scene now that it's not filled with ephemera… unrecognizable to a 70's era LP mogul. I think printed paper will be the same way.

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