RIP Playaways

The media people use for reading, listening and viewing constantly changes. New methods of recording and sharing content are born, mature and inevitably die. The pace of that development has accelerated rapidly in our lifetime. Audiocassettes, videocassettes and CD-ROM are just a few examples of former cutting edge consumer media that were invented, sold in billions and became museum pieces in the last 50-odd years.

Libraries are in the business of connecting people to content and we adopt new media as it appears. Sometimes we are not first in line due to the cost of new formats and the devices that play them but usually prices drop and we add them to our collections. When DVD players fell below $100, every Librarian knew they would be under all the Christmas trees that year and we would need a stock of DVDs for patrons to watch on their new gadgets. It’s funny how frequently those price points are achieved just in time for holiday shopping.

Playaways are tiny, battery powered digital devices that contain one audiobook. Playaways can be more convenient for borrowers than an armful of cds or audiocassettes. They cannot get scratched or tangled up in a player. They suffer from unique disadvantages too. Batteries die, headphones are lost or break and it is expensive to replace a Playaway when it stops working. Repairing or replacing individual cds that go bad is much cheaper. The size of a Playaway also necessitates tiny controls which can be a challenge.

Playaways were a nice rung on the digital evolutionary ladder. They fit a niche and we built a collection that many listeners enjoyed for years. However, time and media never stand still and the advent of downloadable and streaming audio has rendered Playaways obsolete. Nearly everyone has a personal, portable digital device, a phone or tablet that serves a multitude of purposes including playing audiobooks. These newer devices can store or access whole libraries of content too, unlike single-title Playaways.

Survival of the fittest applies. In 2014, 1,566 Playaways were borrowed from our Library compared to 319 e-audiobooks. Even that year, however, a new trend was rising. Playaways were more popular than e-audio overall but their use dropped 20 percent while e-audio grew 24 percent. The numbers have completely flipped since then. Only 429 Playaways have been borrowed this year while use of e-audiobooks has exploded to 7,244.

So, we are bidding farewell to our Playaway collection. They will be removed from our shelves in the next few months and offered to other Kansas libraries where the format is still going strong. They will join their former fellows like records, 8-tracks, VHS and audiocassettes on the list of objects we usually remark with, “hey, I remember those!”

People in the know say that by 2021, almost half of all vehicles sold in the US will not be equipped with disk players. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, audio cds, it tolls for thee.