Over the past couple of weeks two separate stories appeared in the news. One was a report by Amazon that for the first time its e-books outsold its hardcover titles. For the quarter, Amazon says it sold 143 e-titles for every 100 hardcover books.
The other story, which appeared in San Francisco Bay Area newspapers, was about the town of Walnut Creek’s new library, which incorporated 17 original works of art at a cost of $300,000. The neighboring town of Lafayette (population 25,000) spent roughly $400,000 on paintings, photographs, sculptures and prints when it rebuilt its library last year. The local paper described this new crop of libraries with conference rooms, fireplaces, computers and cafes as “community living rooms.” Libraries are not just repositories for books anymore. Some public libraries are redefining their role by positioning themselves as knowledge centers free and open to the entire community – not a museum, not a school, not a social club, but a place that bridges the digital divide and draws together those who share a love of art and learning.
Some people argue that such changes are premature, that traditional printed-book-based libraries will evolve gradually, but they said the same about video rental outlets and CD music stores – and where are they now? The question is: Does the rise in Amazon e-title sales and the public embrace of the iPad signal a tipping point in the physical form that books take – and what does that say about the future of libraries (not to mention publishers, bookstores, authors, designers and suppliers to the publishing industry)?
Some communities aren’t waiting around to find out. The new Walnut Creek library, for instance, strikes a balance between the visual arts and letters to create an intellectually nourishing environment. At every turn, there are intriguing art pieces to view, beginning with a 26-foot-tall art installation created by internationally known artist Christian Moeller for the entrance of the library. Titled “Shh…A Portrait in 12 Volumes of Gray,” Moeller’s work is made from 3,960 books in 12 shades of gray. Perhaps someday people will go to libraries to enjoy the art and stay to read a novel on their Kindle or join a discussion group led by a local author.