As always, exciting and stimulating panels abounded at the 2004 annual conference. But one panel, at least, was deeply disturbing–the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) presentation on "Reading at Risk" (see page 23.) Tied to the U.S. Census, this NEA study discovered that over the past twenty years, there has been an alarming drop across the board in the number of "literary readers"–people of all age groups, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds who read just one book, story, poem, or dramatic work of any genre in any format (including electronic) during the previous year. The only qualification is that the work must have been read by choice, not for work or school. While the actual number of readers remains much the same, the population of the United States continues to expand without a corresponding increase in those who read imaginative works for pleasure. Indeed, the sharpest decline falls in the 18-24 age bracket, which suffered a 28% drop in "literary readers."
Much has been said about how libraries are meeting the needs of patrons in the 21st century. Libraries that move forward in providing new technologies and entertainment formats are touted, and with good reason–we all want to retain our credibility as institutions that provide just what the public wants in terms of both information and entertainment. The Internet and film offerings, whether fiction or nonfiction, may indeed be filling the gap for patrons in today's fast-paced world. Even avid, longtime print readers are often delving into other formats, such as audiobooks, due to time constraints.
Of course, it is important that libraries, as "information centers," stay abreast of patron needs and new modes of communicating information. It gives us all heart to know that we can adapt to meet the needs of a rapidly changing environment. And many public libraries have found new life in the ability to prove their viability to their citizenry by circulation and patron counts that are made up in no small part of the use of non-book materials. Libraries are increasingly popular, as witnessed by the phenomenon of Salt Lake City's "Unquiet Library" (page 14); but that increase seems to be found more and more in formats other than books.
The Internet itself requires and promotes reading, and academic librarians generally agree that easy access to research materials has led professors to require more and higher quality reference sources in research papers at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Born-on-the-web publications have dramatically increased the sheer number of words published, and presumably read, each year. The Internet is also a great booster of books and magazines, providing inexpensive advertising and easy purchasing, and at the same time enhancing a reader's ability to find used and out-of-print material. However, in spite of these positive features, we rarely see users reading for pleasure at one of our Internet terminals. If they access electronic books, users tend to focus on only the part of the text that directly applies to their search. When we notice a patron spending long periods of time online, the reason is usually something more interactive than reading, such as chatting, email, or gaming. Perhaps somewhere readers are online perusing Moby Dick through Project Gutenburg, but this is not something I have observed.
This summer, my eyes were opened by Alice Kim, a fellow writer at the Clarion West Writers Workshop. In a light-hearted science fiction comedy, she envisioned a world in which libraries that held books were not only a thing of the past, but an oddity so out of place as to evoke humor in the future world. Are we becoming too "hip" for our own good?
While we remain relevant in the short-term, what are the implications for our ultimate longevity as we phase ourselves out of the realm of the "library" and into the world of the electronic media storehouse? Is there a value to the discipline of reading, aside from imparting information or providing entertainment? If there is, why does that discipline seem so increasingly irrelevant to new generations, to the extent that librarians and teachers devote more and more time and energy to courting reluctant readers? Graphic novels, for instance, are championed as being "flashy" enough to offer an appealing reading experience for those who are used to more visually immersive media. However, as worthy as these art forms can be, there are just as many readers who stop with graphic novels as there are non-book readers who move on from comics to non-illustrated prose.
Many of those in the current 18-24 age bracket have grown up with a mouse, more often than a pencil, in their hands. These savvy web searchers are perfectly capable of finding accurate and reliable information on the Internet without the intervention of a librarian. At the same time, OCLC's WebCat project delights Internet users precisely because their searches result in hits that include books with deep knowledge on the topic–books that they can then find either through their online retailer of choice, or at the nearest library shown by WebCat holdings. This may result in greater use of library resources; but it might also result in libraries being able to operate with even fewer staff members than ever before, as electronic searches become so productive and powerful that little, if any, human intervention is needed. Click through the web to your local library; run down and swipe the book through the automatic checkout; add the use of off-site processing and cataloging, and you have a completely efficient librarian-less information center. We've already seen some public library reference desks become little more than computer sign-up stations, if volume alone is to be counted. Free wireless access is now available in many of the larger public libraries–but it is equally available in many of the major bookstores and other public venues.
A nightmare vision presents itself: one day, as literary readers die off, low use counts might lead to phasing out books altogether. Many college and university libraries have already put most of their journal funds into electronic rather than print subscriptions, while public libraries are increasingly faced with aging nonfiction collections that seem of small interest in comparison to heavy Internet traffic. If we become nothing more than "information centers," particularly as hubs for Internet use, will the library as we know it be necessary or relevant at all? If public funds go toward providing "free access" to information, would it not be possible for a city to sink its resources into a good web access page, electronic books and journals, a powerful search engine, and wireless access for all? Completely without the need for a physical library and operated by, at most, one webrarian?
Being both an author and an avid reader, I hope not. But given the current focus and energy in libraries today toward electronic issues, I can only wonder what future generations will understand by the terms "fiction" and "nonfiction." So many librarians and teachers strive to impart the joy of reading to children and youth that one can hope that the pleasure of reading will still touch many lives; however, whether that will continue to take place in what we currently view as "books" is anyone's guess.