Friday, August 05, 2005

"I am big. It's the pictures that got small..."

I thought of Norma Desmond today as I was working out. The current issues of Newsweek and the New Yorker feature articles on the future of the movie industry, and I happened to read them back to back. Both stories reached essentially the same conclusion, that there are two camps in today's movie industry. The optimists think that the current decline in ticket sales is just a blip, and that movie theaters will continue to draw audiences. The pessimists think that the movie industry, at least as it is reflected in watching movies in a large group in a big auditorium, is dying. Both camps, though, know that the real money is in making their product available on DVD. Some estimates are that the box office take only represents about 20% of an average movie's revenue, and the studios have found gold in their libraries of old titles.

Home video has been the most disruptive technology in the history of the movies. Back when I was in high school (pre-cable TV, if you can believe it), I remember thinking how wonderful it would be if there were some way to watch movies whenever you wanted to, in the comfort of your own home. No more parking hassles at the theater, no more overpriced popcorn and watered down Coke, no more sticky floors (unless you're a lousy housekeeper...), no more shows starting at 7:45 when you want to watch at 8:15. Now, I have three VHS recorders, two DVD players, digital cable with movies on demand in three rooms, and a broadband connection to the web that allows me to watch movies on my PC. And I'm not even close to being as wired as many of my colleagues.

So now the producers, distributors and exhibitors are desperate to find new ways to get seats in the seats. One idea is to turn theaters into shopping malls with a movie theme, selling movie kitsch and DVDs of the first run movies to circumvent the pirates and featuring food courts for kids and bars for adults. Another is to show extremely high definition TV on extremely large screens (especially useful for sports events like the Super Bowl or NASCAR) in the theaters. Another suggestion was talk back sessions, via two-way video connections, with directors and actors. One producer actually had the temerity to suggest that the studios might want to make better movies, but he has been drummed out of the MPAA.

All this sounds familiar. How do we in the library world offer a service that's relevant where people could function without us? Please don't get offended---many people have been living happy, fulfilled lives without libraries for many years. But it's easier than ever now.

In our world, the optimists are saying that libraries will always have a role, that books and learning and the need for the information that hasn't been digitized yet will continue unabated. The pessimists point to declining reference statistics, the undertakings of Google and the other search engines, and draconian budget cuts and say the end is near.

We need to find a third way, one that builds on our traditional strengths, but recognizes that the playing field has changed. I keep mulling over Bruce Newell's insight, "Convenience will always trump quality in this world. It's our job to make quality convenient."

This requires a different level of commitment from libraries and other cultural heritage organizations in delivering quality. We have to stop thinking exclusively about "our" patrons, even though we are frequently bound by institutional and governmental funding intended for a circumscribed audience. By considering a wider library audience as we make our decisions, we will serve everyone better. Less duplication means more resources for other services.

We need to focus on the services that we can offer that no one else can, and be willing to let go of the things that can be done elsewhere. We do this by bringing different offerings to the web than anyone else can. And we do it while protecting the public's interest in these materials. This is why "hangingtogether" the name of the new RLG blog, resonates so strongly with me.

Norma Desmond couldn't adapt to sound in the movies, and it drove her to obscurity and irrelevance. The movie industry has adapted to the home video revolution by making a ton of money exploiting the resources they already have more effectively. Which way are we going as a profession?

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