By Ni Tao | 2012-4-27 | NEWSPAPER EDITION
Illustration by Zhou Tao
Photo by Zhou Tao
THE World Book and Copyright Day, which fell on Monday, saw some rare good news for financially struggling bookstores.
Local media have reported that starting in 2012, Shanghai media and publishing authorities will shell out 5 million yuan (US$733,138) every year to shore up the operations of a select number of niche but well-reputed bookstores.
Brick-and-mortar bookstores have been losing sales to online book vendors, which offer sizeable discounts and pay no rents that often represent as high as 40 percent of bookstores' expenditures.
The government help, however limited, may at least temporarily prevent the massive closure of loss-making bookstores.
However, their demise is almost inevitable in an age of online buying and more importantly, diminishing public interest in printed books.
Changing reading habits
Also under threat are public libraries. Compared to two decades ago, few people now bother getting a library card and borrowing books to read. Digital publishing is booming and has profoundly changed popular reading habits.
As a result, libraries' role as a major information provider has considerably weakened. When they look for information for their academic work, students now turn to search engines before they turn to library websites or library cataloging, Jim Rettig, president of the American Library Association (ALA), said at a symposium at Tongji University, Shanghai, on Wednesday.
The digital challenge to libraries is multi-faceted. It comes in managerial, technical, financial and organizational terms. But the most pressing challenge is to the nature of libraries' collections.
Newspaper reporters and editors have long been consumed by anxiety that one day newspapers will perish. Librarians share those worries, as people shift away from printed books and now read more often on smart handsets, iPads and Kindle.
The deepening digital reading pattern has raised an important question: should libraries still accommodate printed works?
Libraries now house both print and digital collections. But Rettig asked if it is necessary to duplicate and pay for both digital and printed works.
There is a tendency to digitize library collections and move them online. Libraries that are content being repositories of printed works will be increasingly marginalized, said Chen Jin, head of the Library of Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
Some libraries have chosen to work with online publishers, who until recently were perceived as their biggest nemesis.
For instance, Google's Million Book Project seeks to scan and digitize 7 million books stored in the libraries of Harvard, Stanford, Oxford universities, the University of Michigan and New York Public Library over a period of seven years, Chen said.
It is predicted that by 2020, the digital formats will account for 50 percent of the total publishing market, said Wu Jianzhong, director of Shanghai Library.
To keep up with the trend, libraries will have to undergo far-reaching and painful changes, starting with redefinition and expansion of their services.
Libraries in the digital age should not just house and manage books, but learn to reprocess knowledge and make it more accessible to readers bombarded by information, said Wu.
He argued that libraries must transcend the traditional self-identification as reading rooms where everyone minds his or her own business.
They ought to be people-centered places where readers meet, network and brainstorm. Libraries' job is to provide the multi-media tools, database, technical support and other services for such interaction to thrive.
In the future, there will be more "thematic" libraries that foster exchange and sharing of knowledge. Wu noted that librarians can establish, say, law-specific reading rooms for legal professionals to interact. In a word, if libraries can become hothouses of ideas, readers will visit them again, said Wu.
Transition of libraries also has a huge impact on librarians' work. In the past their responsibility was to gather information for the collections development and communicate readers' needs to library, said Marianne Gaunt, University Librarian at Rutgers University in the US state of New Jersey.
But now that liaison role is greatly varied. Besides acquisition, cataloging and shelving of books, librarians are expected to partner with faculty in classroom teaching and provide computer software and hardware support for academic research, said Gaunt.
Libraries today cannot hope to live off government subsidies only. They have to embrace technology, innovation and reform to stay relevant and win back readers, said Rettig, president of ALA.