The Future of The Book – Libraries as Museums?

As an 8-year old girl, most of my life unfolded in five square city blocks in Wauwatosa, WI. The world between my house on 81st Street and Lincoln Elementary School on 76th did not satisfy my wanderlust and thus began my life of literary escapism. My favorite destination was in the branches an old elm tree in the backyard. With a new copy of Harriet the Spy tucked into the elastic waistband of my pants, I climbed up to where the trunk split into two. I perched awkwardly in the small elbow made by the branches and settled in to read. By the time I noticed that my butt had gone numb, I was halfway through the fifth chapter. Only fifty feet from my bedroom, but light years away with my imagination.

Will this idyllic scene – girl with book in nature – soon be something we can only read about? Will the book disappear? A panel at the WI Book Festival this past weekend seemed to think so. In Defense of Change: The Changing Nature of the Book was a panel of two book sellers, two publishers, and literary agent discussing how the book world has changed. With a few exceptions, the discussion hovered around the challenges of the new world: Decreasing book sales. Amazon.com’s Ubiquity. Rising text book prices. A growing used book market. Declining numbers of readers.

It is easy to feel hopeless. You don’t need to look further than Madison to see proof that local book stores are dropping like flies. Invest in Yourself, Star Books, and Big Deal Books were three independent book stores that opened in the last five years and all closed this last year. (Scholar’s Haven may be closed as well – the building has been vacated, but one can always hope they have moved on to a bigger space.) Even in a town as literary as Madison, the independent book store can do little more than tread water as they watch yachts pass them by, names lettered on the sterns in fancy script, Amazon.com and B&N.

But in every challenge, isn’t there an opportunity hidden within? One publisher said that desktop publishing allows his company to print batches of books with fascinating subjects but with small markets (e.g. Shipwrecks of Lake Michigan). The agent said that its a great time to be a writer – the internet offers writers a chance to put themselves out there on blogs, forums, websites and gain wide recognition. She said many of her clients were growing their sales of eBooks, a growing trend. Will digital media replace the printed page?

As much as anyone, I love the weight of a book in my hands, the smell of freshly cut paper, the smudged ink of my editorial in the margins. Yet, there is a point in every book where I lose awareness of the medium and become immersed in the message. A book’s main duty is to allow a writer to captivate readers with words she’s strung together. We are learning, as a culture, that these words come just as easily to us on paper, a computer screen, a cell phone.

Perhaps some day, libraries will be museums, and parents will point to the specimens preserved in glass cases and tell their children how life was terrible as a child when you walked to school with a backpack full of books equaling your body weight, up-hill both ways. Still I have faith that a few of those kids will go home, go to one of their favorite places, and lose themselves in an literary adventure. Would I have minded if the thing I lugged up the old Elm tree was something other than bound paper? Not as long as I was reading a good story.

Today, I am grateful for the Wisconsin Book Festival, my favorite event of the year.

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