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Lynn Hummel: Libraries without books? Carnegie would flip

I am sitting here in the quiet, spacious, bright reading room of our local Carnegie Library, surrounded by thousands of books, magazines and newspapers. It’s an inspiring place to read, write or think. Thank God for Andrew Carnegie.

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) was a rags-to-riches story. He was born in Scotland in a one room house and his poor, poor family came to this country and continued to struggle. As a boy, Carnegie worked changing spools of thread in a cotton mill 12 hours a day, six days a week for $1.20 a week. He had a passion for reading and he was able to borrow books from a local well-to-do man who loaned books to working boys. Carnegie decided to spend one-third of his life educating himself, one-third making as much money as possible, and one-third giving it all away. He did all three very well. He founded the Carnegie Steel Company, which later became U.S. Steel and became one of the richest men in America. Then he retired and began one of the most amazing philanthropic programs imaginable. One of the key ingredients was the building of libraries where poor people could borrow books. He built 1,687 public libraries in the U.S., 65 of which are in Minnesota and 10 in North Dakota.

But everything changes. For example, I have just learned that because of changing demographics in our country, salsa has overtaken ketchup as America’s No. 1 condiment, tortillas outsell burger and hot dog buns, and we now consume more tortilla chips than potato chips.

What do tortilla chips have to do with libraries? Change. In 2002, the Tucson-Pima public library system in Arizona opened a branch library without books, attempting an all-digital center. But patrons demanded printed materials and the library phased in books. After all, at that time, there were no Kindles, Nooks or iPads. But today, San Antonio has a new Bexar County Digital Library, the nation’s only (for now) all-digital public library. It has zero print materials.

The change has been coming for some time. For example, if you want to learn about Andrew Carnegie in the library where I am, you can look for an encyclopedia, but you won’t find one. They’ve been phased out. You’ll have to go to a computer to get the information you want. The librarians will help you, but you can’t just take books off the shelf and browse the way you did before.

I’m not one to fight progress (much), but I must confess that I’m not quick to adjust (sometimes dragging my feet) and I don’t agree that all the rapid changes taking place around me are progress. Call me “behind the curve.”

I like the smell of books, I like the feel of pages and I like turning pages. On my own books, I like to fold over corners of pages that I want to return to and I like to mark passages (in ink) that I want to find quickly and read again. I want books that don’t have plastic and glass parts, books I can’t break, books that don’t have batteries or systems that need to be recharged, books that never need to be repaired or replaced, books that don’t need a carrying bag, books that don’t need to be turned off when a plane is taking off or landing, and books I can put on a shelf.

Welcome to the future. Libraries without books? We’ll soon have a generation that doesn’t know how to turn a page. Andrew Carnegie will spin in his grave.