Libraries are about much more than books. This simple truth bears repeating in light of the response to Amazon’s July announcement of the Kindle Unlimited ebook subscription service and the all too many reductive and ill-informed reactions that followed.
The offering is an “all you can read” service which promises unlimited access, via a Kindle app, to some 600,000 ebooks and 2,000 audiobooks for the low, low price of $9.99 each month. Librarians, alert to the need for libraries to be responsive to shifting consumer expectations, discussed the implications for libraries. Would this be another wedge, as infoDOCKET’s Gary Price, for one, asked, between the burgeoning e-reader and libraries?
Evaluations of the content followed fast, revealing gaps in high-interest titles, and, unsurprisingly, no participation by the Big 5 publishers. One review described the bucket of titles as a “block sized bargain bin,” according to Matt Enis’s coverage for LJ. Nonetheless, librarians were not dismissive of the potential influence of the model on patron expectations. “I’m enough of a realist to assume that consumers will gravitate to the cheapest, most convenient source of content, whether that’s Amazon or the public library,” Jimmy Thomas, executive director of Colorado’s Marmot Library Network, told Enis. “Amazon continues to set a high standard of convenience libraries should attend to. And every time this huge corporation does something on a massive scale, libraries should be reminded to approach services differently. Competing with Amazon on its own terms is not a good direction for libraries. But thinking about how to complement Amazon is worthwhile.”
Other commentators took the opportunity to ask, again, if the library could survive. An appalling and simplistic opinion piece on the Forbes website posited that the service could and should outright replace libraries.
“Death of the library” stories are popular with the major media—and they are a problem. They too often reinforce misunderstandings and myths about libraries. Worse, they underreport the vitality of these institutions. One has to wonder if the writers even set foot in a library themselves, or bother to look up a related fact. For one: library use is not, as is often stated, declining. Public library usage has increased dramatically. According to the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Public Libraries in the United States Survey for Fiscal Year 2011 (the most recent data available), in the past ten years, visits to public libraries have increased 23 percent and circulation, 29 percent; program attendance has grown by 32.3 percent since 2004. This is not the portrait of a dying institution.
Thomas’s reminder that going head to head with Amazon isn’t our mission is compelling. It reasserts the library role as an institution that strives to fill gaps in its community’s access to information rather than just compete for the sake of market share. Libraries are evolving, some more rapidly than others. What libraries offer goes well beyond any individual type of material they collect to do their work, or any single service they provide.
However, the public perception is not keeping up. The book brand remains alive and well when it comes to the broad understanding of libraries. All too many people—those who use libraries and those who do not—still think only, or at least primarily, of books when they think of libraries. This powerful connection is pervasive partially because it is wondrous. We conjure images of glowing stacks in ornate spaces. Books are icons of learning, discovery, the power of ideas, individual growth, and cultural wealth. For ages, they were the primary object that carried learning. We have, rightly, taken pride in the connection between them and libraries and should continue to foster the life of the mind via books.
However, libraries have always been about more than books. They should be defined by the full range of shared resources they deliver to meet community needs. Ultimately they democratize information, foster equity, and enable our society to thrive through an ongoing commitment to the freedom of the mind.
We don’t have a mission problem, we have a marketing problem. That’s why I particularly liked that the Forbes article spurred San Mateo, CA, librarian and ALA Think Tanker PC Sweeney and EveryLibrary to launch a new round of the Great Library Write-Out—encouraging librarians to tell the library story in mainstream media publications. That’s one good initiative, and we need many more. We need to debunk the myths about libraries and assert the real library story.