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.