Last week a reader frustrated by my perfectly sensible solution to the ebook lending “crisis” in libraries responded thusly:
Why is so hard to understand that first-run, popular, and new books are important to public libraries? It’s pretty simple. Public libraries exist to promote reading. People read more popular books than unpopular books. If public libraries don’t have access to the most popular books, it hurts their ability to accomplish their mission. I don’t understand the suggestion public libraries should not concentrate on providing popular books. Are they supposed to concentrate on collecting books people don’t want to read?
I guess libraries waiting six months or so after publication before being allowed to lend ebooks from a publisher is worse than the current practice of not being able to lend them at all. And, at least while print books exist, people could still check out the print copies of popular books, since publishers can’t control those.
If public libraries really exist to promote reading, as opposed to promoting videogaming or tech workshops or whatever the latest trend is, then having the most popular books is possibly a good way to do that. After all, think of all those poor people who would be deprived of reading culture if they couldn’t read the latest John Grisham novel for free. My god, how will democracy survive?
If promoting the reading of bestselling thrillers is what public libraries are about, then they don’t have much reason to exist. A long time ago librarians thought that reading popular tripe would help cultivate the people’s taste for better books, but they gave that up when they realized that reading popular tripe cultivates a taste for reading more popular tripe.
Reading isn’t necessarily a good in itself. Reading is good because of the good things it brings, and promoting reading simply for entertainment isn’t that important, and it’s very far from the ideals about the necessity of libraries for access to information in a democracy that librarians like to trot out when they’re under fire.
The last question from the commenter seems rhetorical, with no way of answering it without seeming naive. “Are they supposed to concentrate on collecting books people don’t want to read?”
Since I’m nothing if not contrarian, I’ll answer, yes. The bestsellers will be read anyway, but libraries could focus on collecting books that people should read.
No, that sounds too “elitist” for librarians. How about this instead? Libraries should concentrate on collecting books that people might want to read, might even enjoy and benefit from, but don’t know about, and then promote them like crazy.
The bestsellers are already promoted like crazy. Most of them are pretty bad by whatever standard you want to apply, but they’re like cotton candy. They go down smoothly because the readers know exactly what to expect and never get any surprises. People who exclusively read bestsellers and mass popular fiction are hardly worthy of being called readers at all.
On the other hand, in many public libraries there is a treasure house of books that are only “unpopular” because nobody knows about them, and nobody knows about them because the increasingly limited book promotion apparatus ignores them because they’ll never be super profitable.
By the way, I’m definitely not talking about the kinds of books academic libraries buy, since most scholarly books are tedious in the extreme. Just today I was reading one on a subject I was really interested in, but was so put off by the stilted style that I had to pause every few sentences and wonder how someone so knowledgeable about a certain academic subject could be so ignorant of how to write a compelling sentence.
And I’m also not just talking about so-called literary fiction, the sort produced by professors of creative writing for other professors of creative writing. Most of it that I’ve read compares unfavorably to even mediocre thrillers.
I’m talking about the solid, well written fiction and nonfiction that exists but never gets taken up by the publicity machine. There are plenty of great novels from straight fiction to genre fiction that more people would know about if libraries promoted them. There are also great books on history, religion, or politics that are not only interesting and accessible to general readers, but that might even change the ways people think.
Someone once said that in a library there should be something to offend everyone. That’s a bit strong. But in every library there should be books that challenge people, whether it’s challenging them to form new opinions about controversial topics or challenging them to read a book by someone who has never sold a million copies of anything.
What would be so bad about libraries concentrating on those books and promoting them, instead of just supplying the popular stuff? If you really want to promote reading, cultivate the habit of reading something other than the routine bestsellers that are easily digested and easily forgotten, consumed like candy for the mind.
A while back I argued that libraries could promote themselves as tools of the meritocracy we supposedly have in America. That was a cynical post.
A less cynical activity would be to promote libraries as a place to get what can’t easily be gotten elsewhere, a place to find something people aren’t expecting, and for free as well.
Would that be so bad? Or is it be better to just be a place to wait a little while and save a few bucks to read the latest Grisham novel?