On Libraries, Theft, and Entitlement

{Note: this post ran a little long, but I liked where it was going, so I have split it into two parts. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 will be up tomorrow.} Recently, and coincidentally with National Library Week, Our Idol Linda Holmes at NPR's Monkey See blog wrote an excellent piece on how, in all the fuss about ebook versus paper book pricing and sales, public libraries had slipped her mind. So she went in, got a library card, and took home a bunch of books and DVDs, which made her feel like she'd "committed a heist."

It's a telling phrase. Of course, she hadn't stolen anything—she had merely borrowed a few things, and would return them within three weeks or face financial consequences, small though those might be. She was also financially liable for any damage done to the materials in her care—as I was in high school when a teething puppy ate one entire corner of my local library's paperback copy of the Finnish national epic. If she lost any of those books or DVDs, she would have to pay to replace them.

An image of the spines of several hardback books with spine tags identifying them as library books.

Linda Holmes also linked to this recent article by Lynn Neary on the new challenges libraries face in the digital age, which includes another implied connection between library borrowing and lost corporate revenue.

"I think the tension is, at the extreme, we could be making a book available to one national library on a simultaneous access model in perpetuity," says [HarperCollins senior vice president Leslie] Hulse. "And what that would mean is everyone in the country could check out that book for free at any time, and that's not a commercially viable solution."

Which: no. No, "everyone in the country" could not check out that book. For one thing, we don't really have "one national library" in the way this "extreme" example assumes. We have a patchwork of library networks at various levels, which are more or less interwoven with one another—public libraries, school libraries, university libraries, industry libraries, Interlibrary Loan, the WorldCat catalogue, my beloved JSTOR, the Library of Congress, and so on. It means that you can find a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird pretty much immediately, but that obscure book on the philosophical implications of editing in film will take you months to track down, if you can find it at all.

For another thing, since our hypothetical free-to-everyone book is an ebook, there's an initial financial investment in hardware that not everyone will be privileged enough to make—a fancy way of saying that to read ebooks you have to have a computer, or a smartphone, or an ereader, or a tablet device. Maybe everyone in Leslie Hulce's social circle has one or more of those things. But everyone in America certainly does not. To say that making an ebook infinitely lendable is like giving a free copy to every person in the country is a false equivalence.

Specifically, it equates librarians and library patrons to book pirates.

Which brings me to the question of entitlement.

Nothing can get me diving into a comments war faster than someone saying that library patrons and pirates share the same sense of entitlement to free reading material. (Example: this Smart Bitches comment thread.) Books borrowed from a library are not read for free: they are purchased by the library with actual human money, whether the book is print or digital (licenses for digital books are hugely expensive, by the way, so libraries are actually paying more for many digital copies than the consumer does on their own). The actual human money in the library budget comes from actual humans: donors, taxpayers, philanthropists, Benjamin fucking Franklin, and so on. On a fundamental level, libraries work just like any other book retailer: money goes in, books come out.

But the money-goes-in part of the library system happens far away from the books-come-out part—and it is not proportionate as it is in, say, a brick-and-mortar bookstore or even on Amazon, where more money going in directly leads to more books coming out for a specific individual. Therefore it is easy to forget that those processes are connected. So we feel, like Linda Holmes, that we are getting something for free.

It means we as a culture are confused about what libraries do, and therefore it is easy to become confused about what libraries are for.

And that is a conversation we need to change, or we risk losing libraries altogether.

A ruined set of columns yielding to greenery and decay stretches toward a foreboding dark blue sky.

The history of libraries has never been a direct line; you can't go from monastic collections of illuminated works to the Bodleian to Victorian subscription libraries to the New York Public Library and expect the narrative to be clear and straightforward. This makes it nearly impossible to predict the way libraries need to adapt in even the very near future—do you think anyone in 1986 foresaw that libraries would soon be installing banks of computers for public use, or filling requests sent in electronically from locations outside the library's own campus? And yet they did, and they were, and libraries became even stronger for it, I think.

For the record, if the question is, What are libraries for?, I do not have a clear answer. Or rather, I have several answers that do not seem to add up to the One Big Answer we're all looking for. But if the question is, Are libraries necessary? then the answer is a thunderous, resounding, and multivocal YES.

And if we can agree on that, then everything else is just a question of sorting out the details.

{Part 2, which talks a little more about the idea of entitlement in the book world, will be up tomorrow.}