Horrible futures

Terry Deary's thoughts on libraries are typical of a mindset that wants to believe that the future simply tramples over the past, as if after the invention of the video recorder no-one ever went to the cinema again.

"Libraries have had their day. They are a Victorian idea and we are in an electronic age," Deary told the Sunderland Echo. He added: "The book is old technology and we have to move on . . ." Deary did at least have some advice for libraries, and presumably also for books: "They either have to change and adapt or they have to go." On that, at least, he is right. But adaption should no sooner kill libraries than it should eviscerate the book. A lack of money and clear direction are more likely to undermine libraries than the e-book.

Deary is not alone in this somewhat overwrought view of change. But actually our world is splintering, not decaying. People will use libraries and books differently in the future for sure, and we will need to learn to cater for both, not simply abandon one way of doing things for another.

A black and white view of the future is actually fairly simple to imagine, which is perhaps why many pioneers come across as zealots. Books will be digital, and those books that are not digital will simply no longer get put in motion. The old ways must bend to the new. Digitalists can then spend their time arguing over enhancements, subscriptions models, DRM, free, and social. Those library users who still want access to published content can simply use the web; or download free e-books from Google's giant 'brain'.

But in debating the future we should try not to take polarised positions, simply because they do not reflect the world as it is. A muddle.

It is likely that a much trickier future will emerge than the one imagined, if it hasn't already. Digital will need to find space along with physical (and yes, vice versa). Business models will need to make sense of both. We will need to supply reading material in lots of different ways, some of them using concepts and materials from the Victorian age. Some things will fall away for sure, but not all things, and there is scant evidence that one of those things that needs to disappear is the library.

Digital changes everything, of course, but it need not kill everything.

» A history of the bookshop
I feel the same about the bookshop. In his astute write-up of our bookshop workshops held at Foyles last week, Poter Anderson also makes a distinction between a new approach, and an old approach done better. That though bookshops need to evolve, get digital, while flogging physical, some of the things they will need to do are actually well established. "I’m willing to give up the second- and fourth-floor bars to pay for more sales associates who actually know the inventory and their customers. Service. Service. Service. Once more for good measure: service. Boots on the ground, when it comes to book shopping, are only there if they get something more personal than the online experience."

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