The Future of Libraries and Bookstores lies in their own Past

Reading the daily news (probably on a PC or tablet device) one might have the notion that ebooks were on a killing spree, destroying every part of the old media system on their way, the latest victim: school lockers. 


In general, the switch to digital content has quite some advantages to it. A huge group of writers and artists who would have never been on the screen of publishers in the old system now have the opportunity to make a decent income with their creative work. Yesterday’s launch of the Google Music Artist Hub is just another nail in the coffin of music publishers, allowing artists to take full control over the price and distribution of their work based on a 70/30 split. 

The same is basically true for fiction and non-fiction writers who can independently publish their work through various outlets. I embedded another interesting Triangulation interview below in which Scott Sigler talks about his way from delivering his own books as free podcast to ending up as a signed and published author. 

The problem with the rise of digital media is that there is also a lot of collateral damage, and in today’s post I would like to focus on two victims and how they might survive: bookstores and libraries. 

Both of these institutions have played a major role in education over many decades but now they seem to be doomed as ebooks don’t need a physical space anymore. In order to get the latest book all you need is an ereading device or tablet and an Internet connection, right? Well, yes and no. 

The problem of the Internet lies in its strength. On the Internet you have access to a huge amount of content but in most cases it is not curated and therefore pretty overwhelming. Even dedicated shopping sites like Amazon are a huge mess, if you think about it. Sure, ratings can help but then you don’t really know the people who rated and commented on a book. 

The solution to this is of course your social graph, right? Again, yes and no.

Many, if not most, social media users have accumulated a large number of “friends” which are often not representative for the person’s own taste and interests. Social media curation only works if your circle shares the same fields of interests with us though this again is not entirely true as we all have friends in life who don’t necessarily share our love for 17th century French literature. 

So who is left to suggest the latest hidden gem to us? Librarians and booksellers. And I don’t mean those half-time employees at the counter who work there to pay the bills but the person who chose this profession by conviction. Today, you would probably call them geeks. 

In the region where I live at the moment there are still a couple of those old bookstores, small and dark little rooms filled with books underneath the ceiling and an owner who knows exactly where each book is hidden on which shelf. Those are the kind of people who will save libraries and bookstores from extinction. 

The key is to extend their expertise to the Internet on the one hand and to drag people back into the physical space on the other hand. There are already some interesting examples. The library in Eau Claire is lending iPads, Kindle books can be borrowed in over 11.000 libraries across the US and Barnes & Noble is bringing the Nook experience into its brick and mortar stores. 

Physical libraries and bookstores can still be relevant in a digital society in many ways. They can be community centers where people meet to discuss, create and listen to authors, experiences that cannot be taken online. For the economic model, there could be revenue share based on location, e.g. if a customer decides to buy an ebook when he is inside a bookstore or library, the device would know this due to GPS and location awareness and therefore the publisher would share revenue the same way as with physical books. 

I believe that the experience tied to the physical space and the people who meet there is much stronger that we think. To give another example: just because there are supermarkets does not mean that farmer’s market died. Sure, they had a hard time during the transition period but today they are coming back strong. Therefore, there is no doubt that in the coming years we will see a tough time for libraries and bookstores but in the end there is going to be a renaissance.

Picture: Future and Past from Shutterstock

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