A Kindle Does Not A Library Make

June 7, 2011

The library is where I learned to dream.

As a child, could you imagine walking through these portals to Fantasyland?

This is the entrance to what was my local library – the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library on Grand Army Plaza.

It was here I learned about the responsibilities of borrowing and returning what was only lent to me.  How to treat something that was not mine with respect.  How to not lose stuff, and how to be on time. Where they had the coolest pneumatic tube transport systems. Insanely complicated Dewey Decimal System card catalogs. And people you could ask about any topic in the world, and if they didn’t know it, they could help you research it. Human search engines. Specialists in the arcane ways to find stuff.

Did I mention they had books? Packed shelves for browsing. And packed shelves in the depths of the building for storage. I read every book I could find on space travel, and dreamed science fiction dreams about becoming an astronaut. I read encyclopedias for school.  I read old newspapers. I read and discovered.

I loved this place.  I saw free concerts, and dance performances, and movies… one in particular I remember was Nanook of the North. Maybe that is why I had to go and live in and experience Alaska. I simply couldn’t believe that people still hunted whales with spears from sealskin boats, or had dogs pull sleds through the frozen north.

In short, the library introduced me to a world outside of my neighborhood.  Outside of  Brooklyn.

Which brings me to the practical side of the library.

I showed up in Seattle in the early 1980’s looking for work.  Granted no special privileges for being a  Charter Class Member of the Yale School of Management (MPPM ’78) I was just as broke and unemployed as those laid off from Boeing during that prolonged national economic downturn.  It was pre-Starbucks,  pre-Microsoft and pre-Amazon days, when the Emerald City of Seattle was still the Emerald small town.

I turned to the newspapers and job listings in the old main branch of the Seattle Public Library.  Each week I looked further afield until I found a job in Alaska, and started my media career.

Years later, when I  moved down from Alaska to L.A. via Sacramento, with few assets, principally the dream of making TV in Hollywood,  I wound up in Long Beach – crashing on a sofa at the home of a classmate from the Yale, the only person I knew in the area.

And I found out technology had advanced to the point that you could write scripts on a PC. Not being able to afford one, I learned the technology at the Long Beach Public Library.  They provided free access and free classes.  And free was very much in my vernacular those days. Being a news guy never did pay very much.

A few years later, after getting established in LA, and becoming a staff TV news producer for KCAL TV, I interviewed the chief librarian of the L.A. system many times, but principally on the opening of their new main branch. She reminded me of my old Brooklyn days when she called herself – the keeper of the stories.

Many times I attended events at the L.A. public library – one that sticks in my mind is a Literacy Day reading by the  world famous science fiction writer – Ray Bradbury. His reading, and that meeting have always been inspirational to me.

Which leads me to this past weekend in Chicago.

There wasn’t a Kindle in sight at the 27th annual Printer’s Row Lit Fest in Chicago. No NOOKs, Sony Readers, iPads, PCs or any other e-reader for that matter.

Not really surprising.  Held on hallowed ground – Printer’s Row, the old printing capitol of the Midwest, the event celebrates the printed word, particularly books. Printer’s Row had its heyday back before posters, prints, photographs, newspapers, magazines, circulars, road maps, menus and books were eaten by their electronic progeny.

Braving the natural elements of a most magnificent late spring day, thousands of people broke free from their electronic cocoon to physically touch and browse books, both new and used, meet authors, hear artists, stroll amongst thousands of like-minded people, re-affirming that the book is not yet dead, perhaps hoping to find that volume or two that lept off the shelf for reasons that will never be understood by the preference marketers.

While physical books are still far and away the sales leader, 1 out 10 people in America will have their own electronic reader by the end of next year. That number takes on more significance if you realize more than half of the adult population NEVER read for pleasure.

There are a few practical advantages to books. Studies show you can read a book faster than you can read the same text on an e reader.  And of course on a plane, you never need to put your book away, not on take-off. Not on landing.

Because of their vested interests, paper companies have been advertising the glories of consuming print on paper.

But how can you argue with progress?  With being able to carry thousands of books, magazines, essays or all manner of electronically printed communications with you wherever you go? The convenience factor is what led to the widespread adoption of the MP3.  It certainly wasn’t the audio quality, which was, and is, inferior to the old school LP. Convenience drives the consumer experience. Convenience will lead the way for e-readers.

For me there is more to experiencing life than convenience. Holding a beautifully designed book, seeing how the type fits with the page, feeling and even smelling the volume, and then keeping it on a shelf to be surrounded by the characters and ideas inside will outweigh convenience for a long, long time.

Even though it has a million books – A Kindle does not a library make.

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