There are two stone lions on either side of the entrance to the New York Public Library Main Branch at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan. Of pink Tennessee marble and measuring eleven feet long and five and a half feet high, they are the emblems of one thought: books, the cornerstone of intellect and culture, are to be guarded, protected.
When I called the New York Public Library to ask their thoughts on the health of libraries in the face of the digital age, the librarian on the other end of the line, seemingly offended I’d even asked the question, answered with such a flurry of numbers that I lost track of somewhere between “thousands of Braille titles” and “millions of books.” The figures I later culled from a less excitable source, the NYPL homepage, are staggering: at the NYPL alone, 14 million books (in 494 languages), 400 databases, 700,000 digitized images, 30,000 e-book, music, and video items, and 66,000 linear feet of manuscripts; plus audio-books, scanned books, even animated talking picture books.
The New York Public Library system, which includes ninety library locations spread over Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island (Brooklyn has a separate system of fifty-nine libraries), represents something far different than the lion-guarded Main Branch. The core of the system is no longer enclosed in stone walls, but held in the threads of binary files packed into large databases. Digital collections. This is the library of today, far more fluid, geographically unspecific, filled with invisible stacks. The book shelves, dark wooden tables, and brass reading lamps now sit beside computer terminals—bottomless digital wells of information guarded by mere Library Card PIN numbers.
There is a fear that the more libraries expand their sights to new media (e-books, e-journals, online databases and audiovisual material), printed books will grow obsolete. A 2007 study published in Public Library Quarterly titled “Book Circulation Per U.S. Public Library User Since 1856” by FCC Economist Douglas A. Galbi showed that book circulation per user (the average number of books borrowed by library card-holders) has gone down 50 percent since the late 1970s. What the study doesn’t immediately show—but later details—is that the loss is accounted for by unprecedented growth in cardholder numbers coupled with a wider range of items borrowed. Over the past decade, cardholders increasingly use their cards solely to access e-journals, online articles and databases (which don’t register as borrowed books) instead of taking out printed material. As Mary Bender of Boston Public Library wrote in an email, “Circulation for downloadable items (audio books, videos, music, and e-books) generally ranks as one of our top five busiest branches in terms of monthly circulation. And the overall circulation for downloadable items is up 32 percent this fiscal year over last.”
The way in which new media materials are borrowed has also created an apparent drop in per book circulation. Ms. Bender continued, “Our loan period for books is 3 weeks, and our loan period for AV [audiovisual] items is one week. So books as a format can’t circulate as frequently as audiovisual items can. In addition, for a period of time the TV series DVD sets we were buying were split into their individual disks—so one title (like Season 4 of The Wire) might actually be in 6-10 individual boxes, therefore circulating much more frequently than a book title (even a bestseller) would.”
The more libraries I spoke with, the more I realized they are not only doing well, but that they did, in 2010, easily surpass historic rates of user growth in all fields—most importantly, borrowed items and registered borrowers.
The San Francisco Public Library, for instance, has seen an 11 percent cardholder increase over the past four years, a 41 percent increase in overall circulation, and, in 2010, print circulation increased by 521,920 new print acquisitions. Between 2006 and 2007, The Boston Public Library grew by 52,510 cardholders, total circulation increased by 985,616, and per user circulation increased from 7.1 items to 8.6 items (but, in line with Galbi’s report, the percentage of books accounting for that circulation dropped eleven points from 73 percent to 62 percent).
More broadly, a June 2010 report from the Institute of Museum and Library Services showed that per capita, overall library visitation is up 20 percent over the last ten years. According to the American Library Association (ALA), 68 percent of American adults held a library card in 2009, the greatest number since the ALA began keeping track of library card usage in 1990.
For the steadfast bibliophile: libraries are still dedicating the largest part of their yearly circulation materials budget to purchasing books. The Free Library of Philadelphia spends 50 percent of their budget on acquiring new books, 30 percent on system support, electronic resources, and serials (magazines, newspapers, and journals), and 20 percent on audiovisual material; the Boston Public Library is projected to spend 67 percent of their budget on books by the end of this fiscal year.
What’s more, libraries seem entirely unconcerned that computers are moving into their reading rooms. Siobhan Reardon, President of the Free Library of Philadelphia, said in a phone interview that the digital age “is a real complement to print media. For teenagers, clearly this is how they get their information; they love the devices; they love the electronic media. But I’m not worried just because people will come into the library take advantage of the technology that’s here. We have hundreds of databases that, by themselves, most people could never afford.”
On the other side of the country, Luis Herrera, City Librarian of the San Francisco Public Library system, echoed Ms. Reardon’s enthusiasm for the digital dawn: “Libraries are thriving from a standpoint of demand right now. We have a very dynamic transformation to print, e-collections, and media—all of these are going to be vital to public libraries. I don’t see the printed word diminished at all.”
Then why do we still need libraries and not just PCs and a search bar? Why, again, are library cards still important? The Internet is a swamp of misinformation. There’s no doubt it’s a valuable research tool, but it can be incredibly difficult to navigate through what’s credible information and what’s not. As Ms. Reardon said, “The web has a lot of stuff, but I think what we’re doing here is honing in on a very specific type of information that people look for.” Libraries are still the guides and keepers of credible information, whether that information has been scanned, downloaded, or printed.
Later in our phone conversation, Ms. Reardon did start to talk like the new guard at the gates. It was good to hear backbone in the library business—the same strength that I heard in the response of the librarian at New York Public Library. Speaking about the historic difference in how people use libraries, Ms. Reardon said, “The biggest shift for us is just how quickly information is at our fingertips. You used to go to the shelf, and you used to go to the Encyclopedia. So all of those reference materials, and all that stuff that used to be behind a librarians desk, all this very possessive nature that we had is gone now. What we [libraries] still own is that understanding in finding quality information, and that’s just our world, and we do it better than anybody.”