In Praise of Your Local Library

Photo by Vickie Bates.

Have you been to the library recently?

I hope the recession was kind to yours. In L.A., there has been a noticeable change to the collection of beautifully designed, technologically up-to-date “pocket libraries” in neighborhoods across this sprawling city. They’re still here, but the hours of service have diminished significantly, and most seem to be closed at least one weekday, as well as Sunday.

At the same time, the sign-ups for computer usage have soared as people without the means to own home computers or access the Internet depend on public libraries to provide this valuable resource that aids things like schoolwork and job searches.

Now comes another potential threat to libraries: not the ebook, but a new paradigm for access to ebooks through libraries proffered by at least one publisher.

You can read the whole NPR story here, but the essential detail is this: “HarperCollins came up with a new e-book policy that says an e-book can be checked out 26 times, after which it has to be repurchased. Leslie Hulse, a senior vice president at HarperCollins, says publishers have to place some limitations on the way libraries lend e-books.” (Italics mine.)

This seems to ignore the essence, mission and spirit of the public library.

I can imagine many books that may never reach the imposed 26-check-outs limit, but what about books with widespread appeal, such as the Harry Potter and Twilight series? And, these are books that have inspired a love of reading in younger generations.

Monetizing library books is the kind of thinking that lacks an understanding of what libraries are and the great purpose they serve. It’s also extremely worrisome when the purveyors of technology, in their pursuit of better, faster, simpler, cheaper functionality and new paradigms for information-delivery, fail to acknowledge the millions of people in the world – in the United States, even – who can’t afford the price of entry for many of these gadgets.

I applaud the IT director of the Ann Arbor, Michigan, library system, who is quoted in this story, and reasonably notes that part of this approach stems from publishers “still trying to force 20th century business models onto digital content.”

It seems to me the “functionality” of being able to access uncensored information – however erudite or goofy – without fear of being monitored or judged makes the paradigm of the public library system a great example of what it means to live in a democracy. And when designing a new paradigm, it doesn’t hurt to take a moment to think about how it might benefit the broadest possible audience – even those who’ll never use your technology, because there are still places in the world that make it a point to serve people with the greatest need.