Why Ebooks Need Libraries

March 28, 2012

About a week ago, an ALA colleague popped into my office with an epiphany. “Libraries will never die out. You know why? If they didn’t exist, people would be inventing them.” As you might imagine, that got us to talking and finding examples—and it certainly wasn’t hard. Little Free Libraries, anyone? They are springing up all over, and have certainly captured the imagination of the mainstream media, as several issues of American Libraries Direct have recently attested. When you think about it, as AL’s Librarian’s Library columnist Karen Muller has, the Occupy libraries movement sprung from the same human need to share ideas, and often there’s no better vehicle for that than the written word.

In fact, the human need for a library has even prompted the creation of ALA Fact Sheet #16: “Setting Up a Library.”

Karen was on a roll, for she then proceeded to pinpoint, in crystal-clear terms, the heart of the problem with ebooks: “Sharing is antithetical to ebooks.” In one sentence, she had deconstructed arguments over licensing models, pricing schemes, royalties, and copyright protections—the proponents of which defend as the only means of protecting the livelihoods of authors and bottom lines of publishers. But what about simple word of mouth as a means of increasing interest in a title and, ultimately, sales? Brick-and-mortar booksellers do it all the time in a time-honored tradition known as hand-selling. (Yes, so does Amazon with its “You might also like” app, if you don’t mind having your reading tastes second-guessed by an algorithm.) Libraryland’s version of hand-selling, of course, is called readers’ advisory, and benefits authors as well as publishers. If you doubt that, ask David Guterson, who credits librarians and booksellers alike for making his first novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, a bestseller, and him the recipient of the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

There’s no question that reading enthusiasts are also sharing enthusiasts and it’s inconvenient at best to share a copyrighted ebook with a friend when the only way to do it is to lend your friend your entire portable library, or e-reader, so she can enjoy that one title you want to recommend. No wonder physical libraries continue to capture the public’s imagination, along with their contents.

So it should come as no surprise that, even as the people of Athens, Vermont, voted to disband their taxpayer-funded 117-year-old public library at a March 6 Town Meeting, they simultaneously made provisions for the town to set aside space in which to launch a new library when economic difficulties ease. Library booster Dolly Stevens switched roles in mid-meeting from saving the existing library to opening a volunteer-staffed library of some 4,000 books donated to her for the interim, reported the March 7 Brattleboro Reformer.

In Evanston, Illinois, where the Friends of the Library fought long and hard to keep the South branch open but ultimately lost the battle with the city council, the Friends are celebrating the first anniversary of their makeshift volunteer-run replacement, the Mighty Twig branch. The announcement this month that Chicago Public Library’s First Deputy Commissioner Karen Danczak Lyons would become the director of Evanston Public Library and that the board was being given fiscal autonomy seems to auger well for the Mighty Twig eventually to be splinted back onto the taxpayer-funded branch system.

Branch hours for such hard-hit systems as Indianapolis–Marion County Public Library, Santa Barbara (Calif.) Public Library, and Phoenix (Ariz.) Public Library either have been partially restored or seem on their way to expanding. These steps forward wouldn’t be possibilities if it weren’t for the perseverance of grassroots support—and that culture of sharing that libraries embody.

Take heed, ebook creators: You may not be holding quite as many cards in this high-stakes accessibility game as you think.

Posted 3/28/2012