Last week a guest column in LJ by a public library system CEO talked up a strategy to get ebooks from major publishers into public libraries. For the most part it seemed very sound and practical, like informing publishers that libraries actually pay for stuff and that they’re perfectly willing to make checking out ebooks as annoying as checking out print books.
But all practicality aside, part of the argument seems slightly disingenuous to me, and since it’s a part that’s not really necessary to a practical engagement with publishers or lawmakers about securing ebooks for public libraries, I’ll point it out so that people can stop talking about it.
The phrase “critical content” appears twice in the column, and the implication is that it’s critical that this content be made available for library patrons for their own sake. For example, unlike the affluent library patrons,
Low-income residents in poorer neighborhoods do not have this sequence of resources and run the risk of not being able to access digital content that will allow them to fairly participate, compete and contribute to the digital economy/world. This content divide goes against the very principles that attracted so many of us to this profession –supporting democracy by providing access to information in the broadest possible context.
It’s not specifically claimed, but it’s definitely implied, that a lack of access to current popular commercial ebooks is in itself harmful to the poor and undermines their ability to “participate, compete and contribute” somehow.
The lack of information and crucial prepositions in that sentence means we can’t be sure what they’re participating in or against whom they are competing, but from the context we might assume they’re participating in the digital economy/world and competing against other people also participating in that economy/world.
It’s also implied that a lack of universal access to current popular ebooks somehow undermines democracy.
Arguments like this confuse the practical issues regarding ebooks, and they take a possible justification for public libraries in general – “supporting democracy by providing access to information” – and apply that justification to a very specific library-related issue.
But it just doesn’t work. If the poor can’t get popular commercial ebooks for free, democracy isn’t undermined at all. And if they can get such ebooks for free, their real position in the digital economy/world isn’t improved in the slightest.
There are numerous, serious, systematic problems facing the poor in America today, but lack of free ebook bestsellers isn’t on that list of problems. Ask the poor about what they want or need the most, and libraries might show up down the list after better jobs, better schools, and better law enforcement, but I doubt anyone would ever think, “oh, what I really need are some bestselling ebooks to load onto my iPad.”
Besides which, nobody with any power cares about the poor anyway.
There’s also a bit on the role of public libraries that is more realistic than talk of supporting democracy.
Our users are being denied access to critical content and the role of public libraries could change forever if this troubling trend is not reversed. We need to catapult user access to commercial content to the top of our digital strategy or preside over our declining purpose in society.
Critical content (i.e., popular commercial ebooks) shows up again, but here we get a better idea of whom that content is critical to. It’s not so much critical for library patrons as it is for libraries, whose “purpose in society” is apparently to lend popular commercial content to people.
Whether that’s the purpose or merely the practice of public libraries is irrelevant, because plenty of librarians believe that is the purpose, and that if libraries can’t lend popular commercial ebooks then they aren’t fulfilling their primary mission.
If that really is the purpose of public libraries, then they probably will go away. I don’t think that is their only purpose, so I think they might stay around longer than some people think, but who knows.
What I do know is that none of this kind of talk is relevant to the two possible tasks that libraries could accomplish regarding ebooks: getting publishers to sell them to libraries and/or getting lawmakers to change copyright laws to allow libraries to purchase and preserve ebooks and other digital content.
Making “user access to commercial content” a top priority is important not because current commercial ebooks are necessary for democracy or helping the poor, even if the poor were a major library constituency. It’s important because in the future there might be no commercial content other than digital content.
It’s not that the poor couldn’t get popular ebooks. It’s that no one could get access to any substantive information content at all without paying individually every time, and no one could preserve that content. That scenario would mean the end of most research, from academic scholarship to DIY projects. Very few people could individually purchase all the information they consume in the course of their lives.
The publishers might think they would benefit from that scenario, although I don’t think they would. Lawmakers should find that a terrible prospect for society, although the idea of using laws to benefit people is anathema to a lot of lawmakers these days.
But that worst-case scenario still won’t persuade publishers who are fearful of their bottom line at best and extinction at worst.
My advice is to stop talking about democracy or about how limited access to popular ebooks means the demise of libraries. Only librarians care about that stuff.
Instead, focus on issues that either publishers or lawmakers can understand and agree on. Libraries make you money. The total absence of libraries would be harmful to society. That’s the critical content. Everything else is irrelevant.