Libraries, Sponsorship, And The Subscription Model

We here at Olivia Waite can't seem to stop talking about libraries—especially since every other day there is some new game-changing idea or industry development that needs thinking about. Today's (or actually yesterday's) thing was a post by Andy on Agnostic, Maybe that argues in favor of corporate sponsorship as a way of finding funding for libraries with shrinking budgets.

If you're anything like me, your brain went here: Fierce Creatures (Theatrical Trailer) by NakedBrotha2007

And if you're anything like me,  especially if you've seen Fierce Creatures, you have a hearty distrust of corporate sponsorship. You've looked at its effects on major league baseball, for instance, and the terrible things that can happen when corporate interests are at odds with customer interests.

Agnostic, Maybe got this wonderful, awful idea after watching a recent documentary about product placement by a filmmaker whose name rhymes with Schmorgan Schmurlock. Earlier this week, Edward Champion at Reluctant Habits posted an interesting review of this very film and its whole gimmick:

I had hoped that the Unnamed Documentary would be a legitimate protest against corporate sponsorship using its very tools — see Chumbawamba taking money from GM to use “Pass It Along” in a commercial and then disseminating the GM money to Corpwatch to protest it, which is a very funny statement about the futility of activism. But the Filmmaker plans on taking all the money. To my knowledge, he doesn’t plan on giving the profits to anti-corporate forces or people who want to fight advertising in all of its horrific forms. There is nothing in the press notes or the end credits to suggest that he will do this. In other words, the Unnamed Documentary stands for nothing save the Filmmaker’s materialistic gains.

In short, the film is about how product placement happens, but it never questions the consequences of product placement on either individuals or the larger culture. I find this morally suspicious—especially since there are rumors that the filmmaker is planning to make another movie just like this one, therefore playing us all for suckers.

Corporate sponsorship is a dark and soulless place where libraries should fear to tread.

One of the reasons that Andy supports this unsettling proposition is that we will no longer have to listen to the gripes of people who believe that libraries are a part of the wasteful government spending all the kids are talking about these days:

The ideal of the public institution for the common benefit is no longer good enough to win the budget day anymore; the common anti-public library refrain is that “I don’t want my tax dollars paying for other people’s entertainment/literature/ computer use”. Compared to the relative status of police, fire, ambulance, and even sanitation, the library is perceived as a luxury community expenditure. In taking money from interested corporations, public librarians can tell those anti-library people that their money is no longer being used for that.

For one thing, I could find you plenty of people who don't want tax dollars to go to police, fire, ambulance, sanitation, or anything else—is this a good enough reason for the government to stop providing police, fire, etc.?

For another, if libraries are perceived as a luxury expenditure, then maybe a better idea would be to change the perception rather than allowing library critics to carry the argument.

Or—we could find a third option.

A view of shelves, stairs, and books in the London Library's Reading Room

The picture above is a reading room in the London Library, a self-governing, subscription-funded library in the heart of London that's been going strong since God was a boy. At first it looks like the history of libraries: ancient print books, meandering shelves, cozy armchairs. But there's a chance it could be the future of libraries as well.

There's been plenty of talk about subscriptions from an ebook and publisher perspective (the Baen Free Library, Harlequin's subscription lines) but not with an eye toward perpetuating endangered libraries. For instance, this piece from Jane at Dear Author almost gets there. First comes a brief mention of something Jane's library already does:

My library system has a fast access checkout. For $1 or more you can pay to bypass the wait lines and check out the popular books right away.

And then she expresses interest in subscribing to all Harlequin, rather than just one imprint:

I thought that Harlequin might be uniquely suited to offer up subscription access. It has probably 20,000 books digitized and they are constantly adding more. What would you pay to have access to the entire database, knowing that you are only getting access and that should Harlequin decide to shut down its subscription service you would no longer have access? Right now I pay around $25 for my Harlequin Presents subscription wherein I get 8 Harlequin Presents books a month. I would easily pay $25 per month for access to the entire Harlequin category database.

Why not a subscription model for libraries, then? Public funding may still be the democratic ideal, but a subscription model at least avoids the many pitfalls of a library more beholden to a corporation's interests than to its patrons' needs. If 'subscription library' sounds too Victorian for you (mmm, Victoriana), then call it a 'library co-op' or some other such Brooklynish neologism. We'll hold parties for current members to bring guests who might be interested in becoming future members; patrons could sponsor memberships for underprivileged children; there can be scholarship funds for student access.

And when I think about what you could do with a subscription library full of self-published authors of digital books … well, that's going to be a whole other post in itself.