To celebrate Valentine’s Day, we could all talk about our love of libraries. It would be sweet. And we do love libraries. It might be more festive than the New Zealand library that is celebrating Valentine’s Day by giving people blind dates with books. I find that a bit sad.
Instead, let’s talk about all the people who don’t love libraries, at least in practice.
Thinking more about the “great debate” from last week, it seems clear to me that two facts are pretty well established by now: 1) Library budgets are under siege nationwide, and 2) Lots of people have no idea what libraries and librarians actually do. It’s possible these two ideas are related.
Take all the nonsense about ebook readers destroying libraries. If all books become ebooks and all publishers refuse to sell or license the content to libraries, then that might destroy libraries and possibly civilization itself. But the Kindle or iPad won’t destroy libraries.
The people who believe this talk about the lowering cost of ebook readers or the ease of carrying thousands of books around, but they never seem to talk about the cost of the books themselves, or what it would really mean for books to be available only to individuals. They don’t know much about these issues, because they know almost nothing about books or publishing or libraries.
The “only in a library” versus “only online” debate from last week was just one of many examples of people who know nothing about libraries telling the public about libraries, as if large portions of library content aren’t already, or even exclusively, online.
Even the library advocate in that debate didn’t emphasize the contributions libraries make to children’s literacy, which is far more important than their championing of so-called banned books and which could never be replaced by giving a toddler a Kindle.
Librarians and library advocates can deride or bemoan this ignorant criticism all they like, but it’s out there, and it’s based on the fact that lots of middle and upper-middle class folks just don’t need libraries, so they don’t use them. That’s why it sounds like they haven’t set foot in one in a decade. They haven’t.
If you aren’t a voracious book reader or a scholar, then a decent income will get you all the reading you’ll ever want. There is an abundance of reading material free online. Computers are cheap. Internet connections aren’t free, but they’re usually cheaper than cable TV.
Ebooks aren’t free, but if you read only a popular book or two a month, they’re affordable. The people who make claims about how cheap ebooks are apparently read only popular bestsellers and not the $5,000 Kindle books like this one, but popular bestsellers are what most people read. For the price of an iPad, you can buy 50 Kindle bestsellers.
Tens of millions of Americans have smartphones. If you think nothing of spending a few hundred dollars on a phone and another hundred or so a month on cellular, data, and texting plans, then spending twenty to thirty dollars a month on ebooks is nothing.
Even with childhood literacy, libraries aren’t necessary for a lot of people. Children’s books are cheap, and middle class people concerned with their children’s education often buy lots of them and read to their children themselves. They don’t need public libraries, and the ones who aren’t concerned with their children’s education don’t want libraries.
These are the people whose children tend to go to well funded schools with good school libraries as well, so they don’t need public libraries for student research.
People concerned about the dire future believe library advocacy is necessary, and they’re right, but it’s a hard sell. It’s hard to convince people who don’t need libraries that libraries are important.
It’s the large middle class that buys iPads and Kindles and smartphones and laptops and videogame consoles and HDTVs that don’t need libraries very much, and it’s also those people who disproportionately pay taxes and vote.
That’s the audience that’s been missed. Library advocates do a great job of reaching the people who already use libraries.
Add to this the twopointopian belief that social media will save libraries. So a library gets its Facebook page “liked,” but only by people who already use libraries. That library blog or Twitter feed is fine, but only for people who already use libraries. Twopointopians like to think they’re really reaching the community, but hiding behind your computer isn’t much of a reach.
The most effective library advocates I’ve seen have understood the twopointopian fallacy, and have realized that the best medium for socializing is the human voice and personal contact. Blogs Facebook and Twitter are fine for communicating with people dispersed throughout the world, but they’re thin mediums for communicating with the people down the street.
Even with great advocacy, it’s still difficult to get people who don’t need libraries to support libraries. But instead of believing that libraries are somehow essential to everyone, which has never been true, it’s better going in to know that for a lot of people libraries aren’t necessities. How do you get people who don’t directly benefit from libraries to believe they indirectly benefit from libraries?