Want evidence of the decline of print media? Go to the library.

In 2009, print magazines lost advertisers, readers, and now, it seems, the Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library. This year, the branch will spend about $385,000 on periodicals, down nearly $75,000 from the year before. The reason is no surprise: magazine closings, and a switch to online databases.

With the decline of the magazine industry, libraries — long temples to all things printed — have become veritable old folks' facilities for traditional print media, a final home for 20th-century relics who are slowly dying off. A decade ago, the San Francisco Public Library system had about 15,000 print subscriptions. This year, its active collection, with at least 400 titles dropped, has fallen to fewer than 11,000, the lowest in five years, according to Main Branch chief Kathy Lawhun.

"These last couple of years, we've seen a lot more magazines go online and shut down, much more than in previous years," says Stephen Lee, a library technician who has spent 15 years in the magazine department. "Before, we hardly ever had to tell patrons, 'Sorry, this magazine shut its door.'"

For librarians, the death of magazines can be oddly like watching old friends go. "It's kind of like being the last one at the party, seeing who will still be there," says Halsted Bernard, a library technician at the Main Library. Reference librarian Chanetta Jackson is encouraging others to write to Condé Nast in hopes of reviving the now-defunct Gourmet, the last issue of which is now on library shelves. "If enough people write in, we might get to keep it," she says.

Lawhun says the decline in print subscriptions reflects consumer demand. "Patrons and students want fast access on their PCs at home," she wrote in an e-mail, "so spending has moved to online databases with full-text articles rather than print copies."

This year, the Main Library boosted spending on its 106 databases and online resources from $750,000 to $1 million.

So what happens with the money saved on periodical subscriptions? This year's savings go to the library's book budget. So maybe print still wins. For now.

 
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