If Libraries are Screwed, so are the Rest of Us
By Emily Williams, co-chair, BISG Rights Subcommittee
The Library Journal recently put on a terrific virtual conference, eBooks: Libraries at the Tipping Point; if you missed it, the archives are up through the end of the year, and well worth the $19.95 price tag.
Ray Kurzweil was the keynote speaker, Kevin Kelly from Wired gave a good talk, and there were great panels on Google Book Search and on the challenges librarians face in offering useful reading recommendations to their patrons in the ebook age. But my personal favorite, by far, was Eli Neiburger on the Tipping Point panel.
The premise went something like this:
Libraries Are Screwed
“Libraries are screwed, because we are invested in the codex, and the codex has become outmoded. It’s not just a change of text delivery format, it’s a move away from content that is ownable and shareable, and that’s a problem when your organization is in the business of owning and sharing content.
“The brand of libraries is the book temple. Come to the book temple and get yourself some books. Avid library users know that there’s more to it, but…our values and our operation parameters and even our physical facilities are all built around the codex. If [the ebook] is the future of text distribution, then we’re really screwed, because we are unlikely to ever have the access to these markets and the flexibility with our purchases that we currently have with the codex market.
“The real problem is that the value of library collections are rooted in the worth of a local copy. The localness of something loses most of its embodied value when you can retrieve information from Australia in 300 milliseconds. Who cares if it’s local or not? I have it immediately. The notion of a copy loses most of its embodied value when there’s no longer a difference between transmission and duplication. When you’re dealing with digital objects, to transmit it is to duplicate it. If you know where it is, you’ll always have it. There are already more cell phones in the world than there are toilets, and in this century most humans are going to have persistent internet access in their pocket. In an internetworked world, when you can download anything from anywhere, the idea of having a local copy only makes sense to a hoarder.
“There may not always be new material made available in formats that libraries can purchase. This has already started – we had our first request this past week for an item that is not available in print, it’s only available on Kindle. There’s no way that we can buy it.
“No digital native is going to get excited about waiting to receive a digital object, and what’s the sense in making someone give something back to you when you still have it even after you gave it to them? Finally, the user experiences available to people who choose not to bother trying to use the library will only provide increasingly appealing value, which puts us in the situation where all this is happening as taxpayers are having to decide what municipal services they can live without. We are so screwed.”
The Library as Platform
Despite the impression my heavily edited transcription might give, Eli is not the doom and gloom type. He is the Associate Director for IT & Production at the Ann Arbor District Library, and he is a man with ideas. So where do libraries go from here? Try the local library-as-community-platform.
“The purpose of libraries when they were created was not to purchase commercial content for use by the community but to store and organize the content of the community. Popular materials have fueled a huge boom for popular libraries, but libraries were created to protect and ensure access to things like [local texts and history] for the communities that produced them, not to subsidize access to the hottest new clay tablets from Babylon. It’s these unique things that don’t exist anywhere else, and that matter more to our own communities than anyone else, that have the future for libraries. It’s not just data about the community, but also creations of the community that libraries can enable by giving patrons access to production tools, event venues, and – most importantly – a permanent, non-commercial, online home for our patrons’ creative works, making the library the publisher – putting the emphasis on the library as a platform for the community and less emphasis on having enough copies of the hot new thing.
“The cat is out of the bag. Everyone is a publisher. The 20th-century [library] brought the world to its community. The 21st-century library brings its community to the world.”
Publishing folk, did I just see your ears perk up?
First the blogs, then Smashwords and AuthorHouse, then bookstores with Espresso Machines…now even the friendly local library is going to set itself up as a publisher? It’s an interesting prospect.
Many libraries already act as repositories for local history, in theory they have more chops when it comes to marshaling the community’s resources and offering a space and tools for book creation than a private company would, not to mention the fact that libraries generally don’t charge for their services. The big thing to consider, though, is the underlying assumption for this radical rethinking of libraries is that they’re on their own. That with the transition to ebooks, publishers no longer have much interest in serving the library market and will limit digital access to their books so severely as to make the lending model unworkable, or at least unattractive to anyone with enough money to buy a gadget and the books to fill it.
If that’s the case, libraries can either devolve into readers’ welfare institutions, serving only the poor and destitute, or they can reinvent themselves.
Another panelist, Barbara Fister from LJ‘s Academic Newswire, talked about the need to “preserve the things that libraries care about: intellectual freedom, resistance to censorship, access to information (even if it’s unpopular), and privacy, so that readers can explore ideas without fear of consequences.” Of course, “If we move into an era when libraries can only borrow books, when the content is controlled by others, we can’t guarantee any of these things.”
Later, she added: “Publishers have not yet figured out the value of sharing and the value of libraries, so getting that across somehow – unless we just wait for the whole thing to collapse – is going to be really difficult.”
Is There Really No Value to Books in Libraries?
This kills me. Seriously. The idea that we, the book people, would allow our libraries to wither from lack of access to content, with the impoverishment that implies for our communities and our children and our democratic society…it kills me.
I suspect this has happened because for years we’ve made a habit of justifying the importance of libraries in economic terms – the library market = x number of hardcover copies – and moving to digital forces a wholesale reconsideration of that model, just as it does of the retail model. I’m well aware that publishers are businesses and can’t be expected to act out of altruism. But libraries are the ultimate champions of books, they create new readers.
They nurture the book lovers who will choose to read your books over watching old TV episodes on Hulu or playing video games or any of the other abundant non-reading entertainments that books are now competing against. In all this digital shuffle, if we get to a place where libraries are no longer about the books…then I believe we all are screwed, because then it’s only a matter of time before we run out of passionate readers.
Libraries and publishers: we need each other.
If libraries can get creative about how to stay relevant in the digital world, surely publishers can figure out new ways of partnering with them to connect their books with readers. I know authors can.
We’re all learning to work in a whole new dimension – if publishers can now put a dollar value on things like discovery and influence, surely they can take the next step and learn how to apply those concepts to working with libraries. And, librarians: create your platform, bring in your community, but don’t give up yet on the publishing industry!
I promise we can learn to share.
Emily Williams is co-chair of the BISG Rights Subcommittee and a former literary scout who currently works as an independent publishing consultant.