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Libraries, Renewal, Democracy, and That Kind of Thing

We have all been deeply concerned I’ve been about the fate of libraries, but fortunately our troubles are over. Or at least those troubles that concern the fate of libraries. The rest of your troubles are still probably intact.

If you read American Libraries faithfully, you will have seen this article about Library Renewal. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to read American Libraries, since a kind reader sent me the link to Library Renewal, along with the comment: “A zine and a song?  Now I know you are an organization to take seriously.”

If you have the stomach for it, check out the song, and since the accompanying video is someone reading through the zine, you can get the whole package in one.

The interview in American Libraries is inspiring! Sort of. It inspired a few commenters, at least. I was so inspired by the answer to the first question that I stopped reading.

Library Renewal is dedicated to renewing libraries, as long as renewing libraries is associated exclusively with making sure libraries can supply library patrons with free electronic content.

Either we figure out how to get people the electronic content they want, when they want it, in the formats they want it, or someone else does it … and for a price that only some can afford.

And that’s pretty much what’s already happening, as Library Renewal is aware of. The market is supplying digital entertainment to most people at a price most people can afford. What’s the problem with that?

These companies, the faces of the new publishing, will deliver content in ways that lack our special training, care, understanding, community commitment, and long historical view.

That sounds all warm and fuzzy, but it is really true? I mean, long historical view? Public libraries often toss out anything that hasn’t circulated in five years. Is that a long view? Since we’re talking about bestsellers and popular entertainment, does it really take much special training or care to supply the stuff? “Hey, look, this book is popular, let’s buy it for the library!”

This trend threatens both librarians’ roles as providers of unfettered access to content and information, and—since it is built on this concept—democracy itself.

Democracy? Itself?! OMG!! So, let me get this straight. If public libraries can’t supply bestselling novels and Top 40 songs and free Hollywood movies to The People, then Democracy (Itself!) is threatened? Really?

Because this is what we’re talking about. The digital content that companies want to block from libraries is the digital content that makes money, and the content that makes money is the most popular content. It’s sort of the economics of the entertainment industry.

There will always be plenty of free digital content. It’s just that people might not be able to go to their local library to read James Patterson or check out Mad Men. This is hardly a tragedy.

In fact, one could argue that taking away free entertainment from people is a good thing for democracy. Democracy thrives on participation, on global awareness and civic engagement. Sitting around consuming popular movies is hardly the way to become an engaged citizen in a democracy.

The writing on the wall tells us we run the risk of being replaced by commercial alternatives that serve only those who can afford them.

Again, it’s really inconvenient for poor people not to be able to consume whatever popular entertainment they get at the public library, but it’s not the worst thing in the world.

I’ve been reading lots of commentary on how libraries are serving the poor, all that stuff along the lines of, “People are using libraries more and more even as funding shrinks!”

As far as I can tell, the only services that we could consider necessary public goods involve using the Internet to look for and apply for jobs, and technology training courses that might help the truly poor who have never heard of a spreadsheet prepare themselves for more than minimum wage jobs.

I don’t make light of this. This kind of service is a necessary public good in a commercial society. People need opportunities for self-improvement.

Public libraries are also essential to support children’s reading habits, if we can get lazy parents to take them to the library. Children’s books are unlikely to go e-only anytime soon, as parents are reluctant to let their children drool or draw on their Kindles and iPads.

People should also have opportunities for self education, but the tools for that are either online, which the library can provide, or they’re relatively cheap. If you want to learn about history, politics, or economics and improve your mind, then a steady diet of bestsellers and popular TV shows is unnecessary.

And once more with feeling:

In such an environment, all content provision is subject to the corporate bottom line. Existing libraries are not addressing this massive threat, and it simply cannot stand, plain and simple: The stakes for libraries and the communities we serve are too high.

This might all be true, but it’s a problem larger than libraries, and one that libraries, or even an organization speaking on their behalf, can’t solve. The corporate bottom line has radically altered American society in the past thirty years, and some would argue for the worse.

However, making sure people have access to digital entertainment isn’t going to solve that problem, if it’s a problem. Quite the contrary. Commercial entertainment, mass culture, is what the people want, even if it erodes democracy. Giving people more of it through libraries is just abetting their complacency.

Library Renewal sounds like a revolutionary organization with a most anti-revolutionary goal. Americans are amusing themselves to death. “Renewing” the library to help them do it more easily won’t help democracy, and it might not even help libraries.

This is mostly about protecting middle-class leisure consumption. If that’s all libraries are about, they’re not going to survive no matter what they do.

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Comments

  1. Oh dear mother of pearl. WTF is that stuff on the YouTube? Gee, thanks for ruining my morning with the sucrose hipster overload. Honestly, this is what is passing for librarianship now? Because heaven forbid we actually work on serious services to actual people instead of anything that can be done from some desk in Bangalore.

    And as you say, they are forgetting/discarding the idea of the common good and actually providing something useful in favor of just protecting the leisure stuff and what is popular.

    And by the way, that whole deal about cost of devices going down so more people can access stuff on their iPhones or whatever? Not happening. In fact, if anything, phone companies are raising the tolls on their access. So, if you think you are going to be streaming movies on your phone, whether you get them from Netflix or your library, all day, think again (then again, that could be another conversation. Not one that these twopointopians are even acknowledging).

  2. Spencer says:

    AL-

    You are RIGHT ON THE MONEY today (with price is right rules, so you get an extra grand!). I saw this and thought, what a useless waste of someone’s time and effort.
    “This is mostly about protecting middle-class leisure consumption. If that’s all libraries are about, they’re not going to survive no matter what they do. ”

    No, this is about providing middle-class type leisure consumption to the lower classes- who don’t have the skills or abilities to access it in the first place!

    You know who reads e-books? People with e-readers nad iPads. Think they can afford to buy their own- or is that not the point.

    (btw @dances, i can stream movies from netflix on my phone all day.)

  3. Andrew says:

    “btw @dances, i can stream movies from netflix on my phone all day.”

    If you were an early adopter with an unlimited data plan then this probably isn’t a problem. If you bought a smartphone since companies started locking down their bandwidth then chances are you’ll hit your cap after a few days of gorging yourself at the streaming media buffet.

  4. GMinL says:

    It’s easy to cherry-pick a few lines from an organization’s mission statement (or other postings) to serve as a platform for know-it-all snark. Many accomplished and knowledgeable people are involved with Library Renewal, and I am confident any of them (http://libraryrenewal.org/about/staffboard-members/) would have been glad to add more depth to our understanding of their positions and the issues that matter to them … had AL bothered to engage directly. Column writing and competent reporting need not be mutually exclusive … even for LJ. Better luck next month, AL.

  5. Allison says:

    I made it through 28 seconds of that song. Anyone else manage more?

  6. JimBobbaloo says:

    Here! Here! Thank you for the common sense!

  7. Erin says:

    The whole point of Library Renewal is to keep libraries relevant with changes in technology. What’s wrong with that? And it is not just poor people who want popular books and entertainment. Aren’t libraries supposed to serve a wide audience? If the library has what people want, people are going to come in and use it. What’s the point of having a warehouse of books if people don’t use it?

    I think the song is great. At least they are trying to be fun and creative.

  8. sidney says:

    @GMinL: “Many accomplished and knowledgeable people are involved with Library Renewal”.

    And so are some shallow selfpromoters.

  9. Joneser says:

    The video – at least as much as I watched, with the sound off, is of pans of a printed page. Huh.

  10. No. 6 says:

    I would say that an interview with the President of the organization is American Libraries “bothering to engage directly” with the founders of Library Renewal. Generally the President of an organization is the spokesperson. I don’t think the the AL staff writer lacked any due diligence here.

    It seems that Library Renewal is loosely related to the EQUACC (Equal Access to Electronic Content) task force in AL, with which Michael Porter was involved. I think that there is substantial work to be done in this area (part of which is defined by the EQUACC report). Unfortunately Library Renewal seems to be 1) ignorant of economics and 2) focusing on the more frivolous parts of electronic content. (And I do like a good murder mystery to read on my Kindle. I am not anti-fiction.)

    As for the levity represented by the zine and song: it is good that they can have fun, but shows lack of judgement. Some things are best kept as internal motivational tools. It doesn’t present the image to the publishing world of an organization to be listened to. In-jokes fail to impress the world at large.

  11. MobFlasher says:

    1. I can’t stomach another library song. There are more useful and entertaining ways to be “fun and creative” than to keep singing about library crap.

    2. I looked at the list of “staff and board members” and exclaimed “Woo hoo! Another library technology sausage party!” Aside from the one token woman/library administrator, it’s a bunch of d00dz. Because it totally takes a peen to be part of the library technology conversation.

  12. gatoloco says:

    Right on Erin. There is nothing wrong with this kind of effort. In fact, I believe, that if they do not succeed, we will be further marginalized as professionals. We can jape at corny songs, but it does not change the fact that it is put up or shut up time for the relevance of many institutions facing the e-book revolution. Someone needs to provide affordable access, I just hope libraries will be the ones doing it.

  13. ExistentialLibrarian says:

    Fantastic…one of your best posts ever, AL. This group is an embarassment. They don’t even recognize the ultimate irony of marketing a video of a PRINTED product advocating e-content.

  14. LibraryMemory says:

    These are the same folks that were behind another big embarrassment: Library 101.

    http://libraryman.com/library101/

  15. Meg says:

    It’s easy to trivialize access to best-sellers and DVDs, but without a middle class, you don’t have a robust democracy. Without social mobility for the lower classes, same thing. Having access to all of these resources (even the trivial for entertainment) is part of what makes a free society.

    “Democracy? Itself?! OMG!! So, let me get this straight. If public libraries can’t supply bestselling novels and Top 40 songs and free Hollywood movies to The People, then Democracy (Itself!) is threatened? Really?”

    “In fact, one could argue that taking away free entertainment from people is a good thing for democracy. Democracy thrives on participation, on global awareness and civic engagement. Sitting around consuming popular movies is hardly the way to become an engaged citizen in a democracy.”

    Well, that’s a great way to erode a free and open civil society, which is a necessary component of a liberal democracy (liberal as in the philosophical sense, not the party sense) and one that doesn’t just appear like magic overnight. So, yes–there’s a lot of trivial check-outs at the library, but I for one am glad. Obviously, I think your statements were meant to be hyperbolic, but it’s not funny, especially when people start to agree with you.

    Have you heard of Freedom House? This organization has lots of information on the variables that go into making a truly free society. They come out with country rankings, too. And no, we’re not perfect. But libraries are a democratic institution–that’s just silly to try to argue against that.