Libraries have been getting a lot of good press lately, especially when they play the “we can’t get ebooks which means we’re doomed” card, though I prefer the “Why Libraries are a Smart Investment in the Country’s Future” card, which may or may not contain ebooks.
Then there’s the kind of press that’s supposed to be supportive (I think) but is really just weird and uniformed, like this blog post by Matthew Yglesias on power tools as the “libraries of the future,” helpfully illustrated, as a commenter points out, by a photograph showing neither a power tool nor a library.
Yglesias rightly doubts “that providing me with access to taxpayer subsidized comic books is a crucial public mission,” though I know some librarians would argue with him, especially the “comic librarians,” of which there must be some scattered about the profession.
He also believes that “low-income people are getting internet access” is a more important mission than providing free comic books. Somehow, though, he thinks there could be more efficient ways to provide that internet access to the poor, like subscribing them all to low-end DSL Internet connections.
That suggestion ignores a few realities. First, DSL sucks, and many libraries have faster Internet connections than that. I realize that for most people, being poor in America is a sign that you’re a lazy loser who deserves your fate, but why rub in the sentiment by giving the poor slow Internet connections? Don’t they deserve to stream Netflix Instant and Internet porn like their richer brethren?
And while we’re at it, why not throw in subscriptions to Netflix Instant and Hulu as well, to give them something to watch via the Internet.
But what are they watching on? If you can’t afford $30/month for an Internet connection, you’re probably not going to have a computer, or at least a computer that does much. It’s no use subscribing to an Internet connection and then supplying one of those One Laptop Per Child machines.
After extensive research at the Best Buy website, I’ve concluded that you’d need to spend around $400 for a decent all-purpose laptop, one with just enough processing power to make your DSL connection seem slightly sluggish.
The blog post suggests the $300/year or so that the library has per poor person could be spent on DSL for each person, but what about the computer? Even if you figure the computer could last a few years, we’re still talking about adding at least another hundred bucks a year to the equation. Libraries are beginning to look better and better as mass warehouses for computers as well as books.
Plus, unlike the typical poor household that has no computers or Internet connection, libraries have people who can show you how to use computers. Some of them might even have people who teach you how to maintain them, but I haven’t seen those classes.
Because one thing that avid computer users tend to forget after a few years is that computers don’t just maintain themselves. Stuff we do on a daily basis is learned over a long period and becomes second nature, like not clicking on that suspicious email attachment because it might be a virus. (Yes, a virus, unless we’ll be providing the poor with MacBooks.)
Then there’s that traditional mission of libraries to supply reading material. He wants to toss that out the window to make room for power tools.
establishing vast municipal stockpiles of books for people to borrow is much more efficient than relying on a series of household stockpiles. But over time digital technology is eroding this rationale (the day has not yet come when every individual is equipped with a smartphone or tablet capable of reading e-books but it’s quite foreseeable), and it makes more sense to shift away from stockpiling of books and toward things like the Oakland Public Library’s tool lending program.
This is the kind of thinking that separates the upper-middle class from the poor and downtrodden. Yes, it is quite conceivable that everyone will one day have a smartphone or tablet capable of reading ebooks. It’s much less conceivable that everyone will be able to afford any books to read.
A lot of us don’t think twice about buying a book or “buying” an ebook. What’s ten bucks here or twenty bucks there, after all. If I buy a $4 latte every morning before work, $9.99 for an ebook is hardly a big deal. It’s only when ten bucks here becomes “the family dinner” and twenty bucks there becomes “the gas I need to get to my dead end job so I don’t get fired” that it starts to matter. It’s not like they’ll be getting their ebook fix at the local library.
In addition to the DSL and the barely acceptable laptop, should we also throw in an ebook subsidy? Let’s say, a $100 Amazon gift card, so they can buy a few books a year? They could even buy some print books, like those Nancy Pearl “rediscoveries” that will be available almost exclusively on Amazon, as detailed in this article, helpfully illustrated with Pearl’s action figure giving the finger to independent bookstores. If libraries aren’t supplying books anymore, we’ll have to get even print books from stores.
Instead of reading, we should be thinking about “what sort of club goods are being underprovided thanks to transaction costs, enforcement problems, and information issues,” with “club goods” linking to a Wikipedia article that comes with a warning that it “needs attention from an expert on the subject,” so be warned. Perhaps club goods aren’t excludable, non-rivalrous goods. I’m no expert.
In addition to things like books, music, and movies that can be considered club goods, we could also have cinemas, golf courses, and the like. Maybe libraries could provide these. If libraries should provide club goods rather than reading, that would give some librarians something they want, an almost infinite expansion of the library mission.
After all, if libraries are providing power tools, why not other kinds of tools? Stairmasters, free weights, blenders, cocktail shakers, dildos, hedge trimmers, shovels, tractors, automobiles, water bongs, and coffee makers? What wouldn’t it make sense for libraries to lend?
Honestly, why are libraries competing with bookstores when they could just as easily be competing with gymnasiums, rental car agencies, and headshops? I can see the posters now: DRIVE, WORK OUT, TOKE UP, all with appropriate celebrities extolling the virtues of the club good library.
We could do that, or, we could do something sensible. Libraries are having a hard enough time doing what they’re trying to do now. Expanding the mission ad infinitum would assure the doom of libraries, not their future.
We just celebrated the Fourth of July. America isn’t first in anything anymore except income inequality, military spending, and obesity rates, but we used to think it was a good thing to educate our citizens.
Skip the power tools, provide some books, maybe even books about how to use power tools. Invest in an informed citizenry, and let the informed citizens buy their own power tools..