“Newport Beach may close Balboa branch, open ‘electronic’ library”: Many are shunning books. How to restore their popularity—and protect the public library model?

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imageIs this the future or nonfuture of many public library branches in the United States?

Newport Beach, California, might shut down its 35,000-item Balboa branch, one of just four. So reports the Daily Pilot.

The replacement would be Net connections and other technology in the “Internet library” room of a community center. Gone would be librarians and shelves of paper books; instead Balboa would rely on remote reference services and electronic ordering from the surviving branches.

Money or lack of it isn’t the only explanation here: many patrons are shunning the paper books.

“They come specifically to use the computers,” the Daily Pilot quotes Cynthia Cowell, the Newport system’s library services director.

Will more shutdowns like the possibility above happen if the Harvard-hosted Digital “Public” Library of America positions itself as a public library replacement, wittingly or unwittingly? And if people think, “Who needs public libraries, when the DPLA and friends will handle things remotely”?

See why we’re interested in franchise and branding issues of public libraries—and a genuine public national digital library system respectful of local tastes and needs, including the promotion of books of all kinds, especially among the young? Give them a wide variety to read, and the right mix of content and face-to-face guidance and encouragement, not just a quiet place to study; and academic achievement will go up. Simply put, the Balboa neighborhood deserves a real branch, an actual public library, even if the physical size shrinks.

In the context of the Newport Beach proposal, Dave Kiff, city manager, correctly acknowledged to the Pilot: “People identify [book stacks] with the library.” Publibs are far more than that, in fact. But it’s the popular perception.

LibraryCity.org is all in favor of taxpayer-friendly libraries by way of cost-justification and other thrift, but whatever the medium, it is essential for public libraries to keep serving local communities—through localization of national digital collections, civic-related activities in person and online, local story-telling hours in libraries and on the Web, local content like videos and oral histories, cooperation with local writers and bookstores, and other means.

For now, here’s something for the good people of Newport Beach to ponder. If physical books vanish from children’s lives away from the classroom, how much mindshare will books claim? Can family literacy programs, modernized schools, and other efforts take up the slack through a focused public initiative at all levels of government, linked to a well-stocked public national digital library system? We would hope so. To borrow two words from a ZDnet headline, let’s not let “libraries die”? Instead, as we see it, let’s reinvent them. Carefully.

Granted, the replacement for the Balboa branch won’t kill off access to paper books entirely—what with the remote ordering system—but the proposal comes across as another step along the way. As library advocates, we’re very uncomfortable with it. Many young library users would be more likely to check out books in front of them, or on their computer or handheld screens, as opposed to having to wait.

A public national digital library system could better help cities and rural areas cope with the paper-to-digital transition than could a less than adequate foundation-and-nonprofit-dominated effort. As we keep saying, the DPLA either needs to drop the “Public” from its name and focus on scholarly content and other highbrow materials; or else it needs to team up with an institution like the Library of Congress on a genuine full-service public system with appropriate public and private funding sources, governance, and priorities, including tight integration with local libraries and schools in Newport Beach and elsewhere.

Yes, we love DPLA advocate Robert Darnton’s “Republic of Letters” vision of Americans everywhere—no matter where they live—being able to download  high-quality editions of Vergil, Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens, and more recent treasures; and we’re also happy that as a result of our efforts and those of others, his group is at least somewhat more aware than before of the need for general library services and content online. But realistically, Professor, unless you’re part of an organization like the Library of Congress, shouldn’t “Public” vanish from your group’s name to protect the actual publibs, so that real librarians in, say, the Balboa neighborhood can spot a teenager playing video games and suggest a related book? Maybe even one that will inspire the same 13-year-old to go on to Jules Verne and ultimately Dickens? As an eminent authority in the evolution of European culture, you know that most history does not happen instantly, and that good causes usually do not succeed without the right people on the scene. Neither does learning.

Related: Tom Peters’s post on the DPLA’s shortcomings, as well as a collection of writings on the national digital library debate—plus a L.A. Times columnist Michael Hiltzik’s thoughts on the Google Books decision and the possibilities of the DPLA as an alternative.

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9 comments to ““Newport Beach may close Balboa branch, open ‘electronic’ library”: Many are shunning books. How to restore their popularity—and protect the public library model?”
9 comments to ““Newport Beach may close Balboa branch, open ‘electronic’ library”: Many are shunning books. How to restore their popularity—and protect the public library model?”
  1. Thanks for writing in, Erin, and keep us posted! If you have additional thoughts, feel free to share them with us! This is an important issue at all levels—local, state and national. Tom Peters and I see immense promise in digital technology, but we know it’s no replacement for local libraries.

    David Rothman

  2. DPLA discussion aside, I’m rather interested in this library space in Newport Beach. I’m going to have to read up on it more.

    Would we be giving it the same critique if it were not a replacement for a traditional library branch that is closing?

    I think it’s a shame that a forward thinking service model gets implemented as a replacement, rather than an addition to current library services.

    Whether there’s some kind of DPLA solution to digital content or not, facilities like the one described in Newport Beach are going to be a big piece of the public library future. It’d be nice if some libraries jumped in and started experimenting with these kinds of paper bookless facilities in an additive manner, not as a band-aid. Then we’ll have a facilities framework to work with once all of the digital content access issues are resolved.

    • Nate, I totally agree–I’d see the possible experiment rather differently if these limited arrangements were not replacing an existing branch staffed by real librarians.

      Of course, I would suggest that the “library rooms” not only let you order p-books but in some way promote e-books and help you deal with access issues, such as hardware and connectivity. Maybe some catchy trailers would play on the screens. Not as good as schools and library programming as ways to make books visible–but better than nothing.

      The reading rooms could also promote the real branches.

      Heck, for that matter, I can even see branches-in-a-box, so to speak–little kiosks through which you could reserve library books and do things E. Something for malls?

      The more places people can have encounters with libraries and books, the better.

      But let’s not have this happen at the expense of existing branches! I’m sure you agree, Nate. Also, I’d hope you’d agree that the pseudo-branches, whatever, should mainly bear the branding of local systems rather than simply the DPLA’s.

      Many thanks for writing in, and I hope you’ll spread word about LibraryCity.org, to which you’re also very welcome to contribute essays!


      P.S. USA Today carried a Balboa-related piece. I’ll try to find the URL.

  3. Thanks, Nate. I really like what you’ve been up to. For latecomers, here’s what Nate wrote in his Outpost piece–for the benefit of librarians worried about patrons in the Outposts not being able to browse the actual stacks:

    “I want to make it abundantly clear that the goal is NOT to replace all traditional libraries with library Outposts. An Outpost is just one node in a network of different physical service points. Just as the car-culture era bookmobiles didn’t replace library branches, neither will Outposts.”

    And, yes, I appreciate your sensitivity to geo considerations. This is like any other real estate-related matter. “Location, location, location!”


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