The obsolete library

Technology, like water and fire, moves in any direction it wants and often with no conscience.

I was recently in Seattle and was overwhelmed by the scale of the six-year old downtown public library.

In 1998, Seattle voters approved the largest library bond issue in US history. The $196 million “Libraries for All” bond measure resulted in an 11-floor, 362,987-square-foot avant-garde Rem Koolhaas-designed extravaganza.

When the library was conceived in 1996, the power of the Internet was just becoming apparent and the forthcoming digital book revolution was nowhere in sight.

Now, it has landed, and questions should be raised about the relevance of a massive structure who’s highest and best use was once warehousing physical books.

The Seattle Public Library board of trustees is working on a strategic plan for the library. The year-long process has been full of opinions, but none seem to be directly asking the fundamental question: the rationale of such an institution when physical books will be obsolete very quickly.

Digital books can now do the job of libraries in a much more efficient and cost effective way. We can expand reading and spread books throughout the world without relying on expensive real estate.

So, what will become of libraries? We will leave that challenge to others.

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