Are Bibliophiles a Dying Breed?
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By Anonymous, October 15, 2010 in Publishing and Research, Professional Development

I am a self-professed bibliophile (book lover/book collector) and perhaps a borderline bibliomaniac (crazy for books).  I know that I am not alone in my wonderful affliction as there are many at ISI and in academia who have a great appreciation (if not a passion) for books.  Being the bibliophile that I am, I can’t help but feel peevish during conversations where someone predicts that the book is rapidly approaching its extinction and that libraries will soon vanish from the earth.  Even an occasional librarian will make such claims.  Often people suggest these apocalyptic views with questions such as, “Do you have to use libraries anymore for your research?” or “Isn’t it sad how the publishing industry is suffering so much?”  As a result of common pronouncements about the end of books and my own love of the same, I have been thinking about the future of books and libraries.  I offer the following as some optimistic opinions about the future of books, libraries, and bibliophilism. 

It is certainly true that book publishers have been suffering lower profit margins in recent years, especially among academic and traditional publishing houses.  However, I do not think that suffering profit margins among book publishers means that consumers are less interested in owning books.  The ills of book publishers certainly reflect changes in publishing and book selling industries, but changes do not necessarily mean that there are now fewer book buyers or readers than there were ten or twenty years ago.  The practices of major book sellers such as Amazon, who require significant price reductions from publishers in order to sell their books, may be affecting the publishers’ bottom line more significantly than a lessening demand for printed books.  Non-traditional forms of book publishing, conversely, are flourishing in this digital age.  In 2008, Bowker (who tracts bibliographic information) projected that “U.S. title output in 2008 decreased by 3.2%, with 275,232 new titles and editions, down from the 284,370 that were published in 2007.”  However, they also reported that “on demand” and short-run book publishing sky-rocked in the same period.  They projected “that 285,394 On Demand books were produced” in 2008, which was “a staggering 132% increase over last year’s final total of 123,276 titles.”  This was “the second consecutive year of triple-digit growth in the On Demand segment.”  This study also suggests that some of the decrease in new books published reflects the fact that publishers are being more selective in what they publish in order to be more competitive.[i]  While fewer new book and editions were published in 2008, the growth in books On Demand significantly surpassed the losses felt in traditional book publishing and reflects a continued demand for physical books.  It is also interesting to note that many of the On Demand publications being printed are books published before 1923, and some of these are the same ones that Google has made available for free online.    

Libraries, like book publishers, are experiences changes as a result of increases in digital resources, but they are by no means becoming less relevant.  Both major city libraries and small town libraries continue to experience extensive use by their communities.  One national study of all public libraries between 1997 and 2007 indicates that libraries usage has increased over the last decade.  The study, produced by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, notes that “nationwide, per capita visitation increased every year during the study period, growing steadily from 4.13 in 1997 to 4.91 in 2007, an increase of 19 percent.”  While people are visiting libraries for a growing number of reasons and utilizing many services at libraries, there continues to be a high demand for books.  The same study concluded that, “The visitation and circulation figures indicate that people are visiting public libraries more and checking out more materials than they were at the beginning of the study period.”[ii]  Although analysis of nationwide data is not available for the last three years, local examples suggest that since 2007 libraries have continued to be relevant and well used.  In fiscal year 2009, the Boston Public Library noted that more than 300,000 Boston residents used their library cards, which was a ten percent increase from the previous year.  Similarly, in 2008, “2.5 million books, DVDs, CDs” were borrowed from the Boston Public Library system.[iii]  The Princeton Public Library also provides an example of the continued demand for libraries.  “With between 2,200 and 2,500 people passing through its doors each day” the Princeton Public Library is thriving and busy where people are engaged with both printed and digital material.[iv]

            In my opinion one of the best recent articles about books and libraries was written by Thomas H. Benton and published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  He argues that “there may never have been a time when librarians seemed more vital, forward-thinking—even edgy—than they do now,” because libraries are the places best equipped for helping us navigate the complex matrix of printed and digital information.  This article references two recent books that explore the current state of books and libraries and make positive predictions about the future of both: The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (Public Affairs, 2009) by Robert Darnton (director of Harvard's University Library) and This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All (HarperCollins, 2010) by Marilyn Johnson.  Some of their analysis and evidence would likely surprise people who predict the end of books:

While Darnton presents digital technology as giving us new opportunities for gaining access to information, he is no advocate of abandoning the printed word. He observes that the "number of books in print goes up every year, currently amounting to more than a million new titles." It's an alarming rate of increase, one that many libraries, such as Harvard's, can deal with only through the use of off-site depositories.

There is some preliminary evidence to suggest that digital information – including free previews and full text version of digital books on the internet – are a compliment to printed material.  Google-Books help consumers make better educated book buying choices and may at times even increase the demand for some printed materials.  As such, Robert Darnton argues that “physical books will remain with us indefinitely.” [v]

Through my study of history, I am reminded that continuity and discontinuity are always present as societies evolve.  In all likelihood, lovers of the printed word will not vanish.  However, just as books, publishing, and libraries will adapt and co-exist with digital information, so too will bibliophiles learn that they have much in common with the developing breed of people who may eventually be called cyber-bibliophiles – lovers of digital words.



[i] Publishing Central, “Bowker Reports U.S. Book Production Declines 3% in 2008, but ‘On Demand’ Publishing More than Doubles,” May 19th, 2009, < http://publishingcentral.com/blog/book-publishing/bowker-reports-us-book-production-declines-3-in-2008-but-on-demand-publishing-more-than-doubles?si=1>.

[ii] Everett Henderson, “Service Trends in U.S. Public Libraries, 1997-2007,”Research Brief series, no. 1, IMLS-2010-RB-01, (Washington, DC: Institute of Museum and Library Services).

[iii] The Boston Public Library, “BPL by the numbers,” <www.bpl.org/general/about/stats.htm>.

[iv] Ellen Gilbert, “Princeton Public Library: 100 Years as ‘The Community’s Living Room’” in Princeton Magazine, Spring 2010.

[v] Thomas H. Benton, “Marian the Cybrarian,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 20, 2010, <http://chronicle.com/article/Marian-the-Cybrarian/65570/>.

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4 Comments
Gary Scott on Oct 15, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Relevant to your helpful anlayses, among those American adults otherwise equal in family background, age, income, education, and professional experience; those who read more non-fiction print tend to score higher on the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's (ISI) American Civics exam. In contrast, more reading of web sites proved neutral in impacting civic knowledge. We did not collect the detail to identify whether this unequal impact was the difference in the medium precisely, or the respective content of that which they were reading.

Anonymous on Oct 15, 2010 at 2:37 pm

"...at the intersection of rapid change and finical meltdown, some of its librarians carve out a niche, some get iced out and some help plan the future of the library and how to use it." p. 503

Lee Trepanier on Oct 16, 2010 at 5:09 pm

It seems to me that the printed book will always stay with us until technology is able to develop to the point where I can take my tablet or ipad to the beach and not worry about getting it wet!

Jessica Hooten on Oct 18, 2010 at 8:21 am

Recently I and a colleague from Baylor founded a nonprofit book publishing group Thalia Books as a subsidiary of Shadowlands Media. Thankfully we're nonprofit so we can publish the books we want--great works of fiction that inspire positive change! Thanks for the article, Richard.