Friday, October 30, 2015

Libraries, Books, and Elitism

"So is the library, storehouse and lender of books, as anachronistic as the record store, the telephone booth, and the Playboy centerfold? Perversely, the most popular service at some libraries has become free Internet access. People wait in line for terminals that will let them play solitaire and Minecraft, and librarians provide coffee. Other patrons stay in their cars outside just to use the Wi-Fi. No one can be happy with a situation that reduces the library to a Starbucks wannabe."
James Gleick, "What Libraries (Still) Can Do" NYRDaily October 26, 2015

This is one of the worst examples of snobbery and elitism in relation to libraries that I have seen in a long time. It is also horribly uninformed. Let me disassemble this a bit.

First, libraries as places to gather is not new. Libraries in ancient Greece were designed as large open spaces with cubbies for scrolls around the inside wall. Very little of the space was taken up with that era's version of the book. They existed both as storehouses for the written word but also a place where scholars would come together to discuss ideas. Today, when students are asked what they want from their library, one of the highest ranked services is study space. There is nothing wrong with studying in a library; in fact, as anyone with a home office knows, having a physical space where you do your studying and thinking helps one focus the mind and be productive. 

Next, the dismissive and erroneous statement that people use "terminals" (when have you last heard computers called that?) to play solitaire and Minecraft completely ignores that fact that many of our information sources today are available only through online access, including information sources available to most users only through the library. If you want to look up journal articles you need the library's online access. Second, many social services are available online. The US government and most state governments no longer provide libraries with hard copies of documents, but make them available online. From IRS tax preparation help to information about state law and city zoning ordinances, you absolutely must have Internet access. Internet access is no longer optional for civic life. I can't imagine that anyone is waiting in line at a library for a one-hour slot to build their Minecraft world, but if they are, then I'm fine with that. It's no less "library-like" than using the library to read People magazine or check out a romance novel. (Gleick is probably against those, too.)

Gleick doesn't seem to know (and perhaps Palfrey, whose book he is reviewing, ditto) that libraries have limits on ebook lending.
And a library that could lend any e-book, without restriction, en masse, would be the perfect fatal competitor to bookstores and authors hoping to sell e-books for money. Something will have to give. Palfrey suggests that Congress could create “a compulsory license system to cover digital lending through libraries,” allowing for payment of fair royalties to the authors. Many countries, including most of Europe, have public lending right programs for this purpose.
This completely misses the point. Libraries already lend e-books, with restriction, and they pay for them in the same way that they pay for paper books -- by paying for each copy that they lend. Suggesting a compulsory license is not a solution, and the public lending right that is common in Europe is for hard copy books as well as e-books. The difference being that the payment for lending in those countries does not come out of library budgets but is often paid out of a central fund supporting the arts. Given that the US has a very low level of government funding for the arts, and that libraries are not funded through a single government mechanism, a public lending payment would be extremely difficult to develop in this country.  There is the very real risk that it would take money out of already stretched library budgets and would  further disadvantage those library systems that are struggling the most to overcome poor local funding.

I don't at all mind folks having an opinion about libraries, about what they like and what they want. But I would hope that a researcher like Gleick would do at least as much research about libraries as he does about other subjects he expounds on. They - we - deserve the same attention to truth.

1 comment:

Gregory Bem said...

Thanks for posting this. I've admired Gleick in the past for his writing, but this review certainly falls short of acknowledging a lot of the realities of the library, as well as making issues we've been dealing with (as librarians) for literally decades seem like they're just now emerging.