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Dire predictions about libraries premature

Someone once said that if you have a garden and a library card, you have everything you need. Both keep you nicely grounded. You can pick up ideas at the library and let them take root in your mind.
The library card is a tiny wireless device that allows you to read just about every book that’s ever been printed. If the one you want isn’t on the local shelves, an inter-library loan request will bring it here.
I know all this because I used to be the chairperson of the Guelph Public Library Board. I occupied (if you’ll pardon the expression) the chair for a good two years. On Tuesday I became the eminence grise, the elder statesman. I am now the past chair. One of the free wise men. Everyone should apply to sit on one or another of the public agencies, boards and commissions that exist in Guelph. It gives a good taste of what public service is all about. There’s lots of them, covering everything from fence viewing to running the General Hospital.
Earlier this month, the CBC national news carried a story about e-books in libraries. There is a popular notion that digital books will make libraries redundant.
If you’ve been around long enough, you’ll remember the prediction that television would be the death of radio. It wasn’t.
Television turned into a sort of talking lamp. Radio without the imagination.
Then VHS machines were going to be the death of cinemas. Again, not true. Cable television is definitely killing the video rental business, but people still go to the theatre to see first-run movies.
The news program threw doubt onto the idea that libraries are on their death beds.
The six largest publishers in Canada don’t mind selling electronic versions of their new books to individuals. They don’t like selling to libraries.
Harper Collins wants to limit e-books to 26 loans. After that, the library would have to buy another copy. Penguin won’t sell new books to public libraries. After they’ve been out long enough for people to stop buying the physical book, libraries can get them.
Other publishers won’t sell to libraries at all.
They aren’t going back to reissue all their back catalogues in digital form. Google is scanning millions of old books and storing them as pdf files. You can read them on a computer, but it’s like reading a photocopy. Most are not compatible with e-readers.
Here’s something else. I recently borrowed an electronic version of Talking About Detective Fiction by P. D. James. As she traces the development of mystery writing since the very early days of Dickens and Poe, James mentions no less than 96 titles. Only 37 of them are available electronically through Google books. Over 60  per cent are not. She also has a bibliography of suggested reading. It lists 17 titles, only one of which is available as an e-book.
I bet other subject areas have the same problem. You can get new books for your Sony or Kobo but if you want to dig below the surface of a subject, you’ll have to go to a physical book on a physical library shelf.
Given the precarious financial condition of the publishing business, I doubt this imbalance will be corrected quickly enough to kill a library.
If you think Danielle Steele and Dan Brown are the apex of literary achievement, you might think libraries are in danger. In truth, e-books are like drive-through fast food joints, and libraries are full-course restaurants.
There’s room enough for both, but we should never sacrifice substance in the pursuit of convenience.

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