Libraries, A Love Story

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As far as publishing/literary biz blogs go, I’m a fan of Nathan Bransford. He’s friendly, down-to-earth, accessible, knows his stuff, and manages to make what seems a discouraging, confusing business into something you feel you can tackle. So I was a bit surprised when I read his most recent entry, “What Role Should Libraries Have in an Electronic World?” and came across something that was like discovering your favorite teacher is a secret rabid Republican or your friendly co-worker likes to hunt cute little bunnies on the weekends.

Bransford’s entry springboards off a recent comment by children’s author Terry Deary, who said libraries have had their day, and the concept behind them — making books and other sources of knowledge free for many — harms authors and fosters the expectations that books should be free. Bransford handles Deary’s comments pretty even-handedly and summarizes the debate quite nicely, but then goes on to say, “I have to admit that I cringe a bit when well-off people borrow from the library instead of buying the book.”

Both Deary’s and Bransford’s comments really hit a chord in me — a big nasty wall-of-noise chord, the kind that drags feedback screeching from the amplifiers like some beast of hell. The kind that make you throw something against the wall and yell, “WTF?!”

I Heart Libraries

Part of my reaction, of course, is because libraries are some of my happiest memories as a child and oh no you don’t be messin’ with my library you better believe I’ma gonna throw down. I remember being four and signing my name in wobbly letters for my first library card, and how my dad would take me every Saturday afternoon to our local branch, where I’d check out a pile of books bigger than I was. I have fond memories of the summer reading club, of getting my name up as a star for every 20 books I read and winning ice cream cones from Baskin-Robbins and a free trip to Magic Waters because I was one of the highest scoring readers. My love affair with fashion was born in the library, where I’d page through stacks of Vogues. I happily spent hours in the library, and even to this day, they’re among my favorite places in the world — one of my favorite spots at Columbia was Butler Library, where I’d sit for hours on the floors overlooking the campus and the sun would fill the room with a glowing light at sunset, feeling content with my place in the world, surrounded by beautiful old books.

When I simmer down, of course, I can understand both Bransford’s and Deary’s position. Both are in the process of selling books in one way or another, and their perspective puts sales at the core of what it means to survive as an author — Deary more than Bransford, who’s been very measured and inquisitive about digital publishing overall, if you read through his blog as a whole. And they’re right to question how libraries can help sustain publishing and literature, especially in this era of rapid technological change and industry disruption.

It’s something I read and think about in my day job as a technology writer and editor everyday, which puts me somewhat in a privileged position when it comes to knowing what’s going on with digital publishing and industry changes. And while publishers and (some) authors managed the first wave of digitization quite nicely (and certainly with more broad-mindedness than the music industry, which hasn’t recovered from its initial stumbles), it’s clear this next wave of changes is more challenging than ever. When libraries are lending e-books and e-readers, it’s right to look at that new channel of distribution and ask how authors should be fairly compensated for that. It’s why films, for example, have such high prices for institutions — they know they’ll be lent many times in a university library system, for example. It’s why software licensing at institutional levels is priced differently, as well.

But I’m not here to talk about technology, but instead unpack why Deary’s┬ácomments strike me as so odd and even reactionary. It’s not the focus on sales, because as an author, I recognize selling books is important — and I want to sell a good amount of books one day. But there are a few assumptions underlying the comments that rankled me, I suppose.

The first that hits me concerns who libraries are for. Libraries perhaps do command a certain “romanticism,” as Deary characterizes it, because who doesn’t believe in the ideal of a commons of human knowledge, available to everyone, no matter how rich or poor? Libraries are one of the few genuinely democratic institutions in the U.S. and at their best serve a valuable, even noble role in their communities. They can be used a number of different ways, from the homeless people who sit at tables and read, to the kids romping in the children’s lit section, to couples taking free seminars about buying their first home in the conference rooms. And of course they serve people like you and me, who just love to read LOTS and LOTS and LOTS of books, wandering up and down the aisles in a kind of haze of bliss.

Sure, libraries are invaluable for the poor and underprivileged, but to confine them to just this segment of the population strikes me as, at best, odd. (At worst, it’s highly problematic, because the notion of “class” and saying who is or is not “well-off” is incredibly tricky to define, but let’s not get into a neo-Marxist diatribe here.) Libraries belong to everyone, and it heartens me to read all the comments in Bransford’s entry that are so pro-library. It warms my cold, hardened heart to know my love of libraries is shared! Is this feeling “romantic”? Maybe, but it’s right, and it’s a feeling that unites a larger community of readers.

Hierarchies, Schmierarchies

But another underlying assumption that puzzles me is the misunderstanding of ownership and what it means for a book to have “value.” Or maybe it’s not really a misunderstanding, per se, but failing to recognize that a different hierarchy is emerging in terms of what it means to “consume” a work of literature, a shift being wrought quickly through the digitization of books. I think of it as a “mosaic of interaction,” if you want to get fancy about it — digitization fragments the interactions we can have with works of art and information.

I think of music: some bands I will only ever consume through Spotify because while I like some songs, I’m not convinced I’ll love them forever — they still have to prove themselves. Others I will buy the mp3 record because from what I’ve heard, it’s a good record as a whole, and I do consciously want to support a band. And still others I will go out to get the CD or vinyl, because I know they’re a part of my soul’s DNA in some way — and often because the physical artifact also gave me access to digital copies, another key selling point.

It’s why I shelled out to buy the recent Blu-ray of “Game of Thrones'” second season — buying the Blu-Ray gave me both DVDs to lend and digital copies to download for my laptop. Even with the books, I own them in digital format because I love reading them while traveling — and I own them as paperback copies because there’s something about reading books as a physical artifact that makes it linger with me longer. And I’ll probably buy George R.R. Martin’s next installment in hardback, because he’s created a world and characters so vivid that I MUST KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. (Is Jon Snow alive?!!! Aaargh!!!) I’ll probably wait to buy Karen Russell’s new Vampires in the Lemon Grove in paperback, which is how I read most of my literary fiction, but I’ll probably borrow it at the library in the meantime. I tend to buy most of my YA on e-books — unless it’s something I fall in love with and want to visit again and again, in which case I’ll buy the book. This is just how people read now.

My rather rambling point is that you can’t legislate a reader’s loyalty or emotional attachment, and while I rarely say this as a former punk with a straight face, you can’t obligate people to buy something — you have to earn it. You can choose not to offer your book in e-format or at a library. That’s a prerogative authors and publishers have. And if that’s an author’s or publisher’s middle finger to readers, then guess what? There is plenty of competition in the marketplace for us to move onto.

And it’s not that I think I should get books for free — and I don’t think libraries foster that expectation. There’s a huge, huge difference between libraries and, say, Napster — libraries let you borrow books, music, films, DVDs and other things. (How anyone could overlook this is beyond me, but apparently Deary has.) Any adult, well-off or otherwise, steps into a library because they love books and likely is already a buyer of them. Instead, I’d argue it’s the digital nature of material itself that degrades the perception of value, and this is something ALL media industries are struggling with. Deary whines about people shelling out to see a movie of “Matilda,” but clearly he’s not aware of the huge impact of piracy on the film industry and their own struggles against the increasing digitization of the medium.

(My brief theory: as books go digital, we need to move away from the idea of an artifact/product, and instead think of e-books as a kind of software, much of which functions on a licensing model. But that’s just a thought, and I’ve still yet to think it through fully.)

So what can authors and publishers do to bring perceptions of “value” to the digital works they’re selling? There are a few routes I see: on a bigger level, e-book technology needs to evolve, and so do e-readers. It’s not enough anymore to simply offer a digital format — if you want people to pay more for digital books, you have to take fuller advantage of the digital medium, whether it’s offering audio versions along with the e-book, or video interviews with the author. Or how about interactive, multimedia commentary? Nonfiction books can take advantage of the ability to update material — perhaps charge a higher price with the idea that you get a perpetual edition, which could be invaluable for researchers, for instance? Digital books can be bundled in unique ways — what about partnerships between authors, for instance, which could offer the chance to combine audiences?

I’m sure there’s plenty of points against ideas like these and the tech and infrastructure isn’t yet in place to make them happen easily. But the idea isn’t necessarily to offer concrete solutions, but to illustrate that we need to think creatively about the digital medium as we do about the writing itself. And we need to think creatively overall about this new mosaic of interaction, as I call it, and think about what kinds of writing and stories serve what avenue best, and how each channel — and the audiences each attracts — feeds and stands independently of the others.

Stop Being So Freaking Short-Sighted

Beyond the medium, the assumptions that underlie Deary’s words are that authors — and publishers and agents and publicists and bookstores and the whole apparatus of the literary business — are in the business of selling books. They are not. On one level, I’m being provocative with that statement, because of course authors and the people and institutions that support them in business want works to sell. But really, really smart business minds know that they’re in much bigger businesses than what they sell on the surface.

(A famous example: McDonalds founder Ray Kroc addressed a business school class, and asked what business McDonalds is in. The answer most students guessed: hamburgers. But Kroc said no — McDonalds is actually in the business of real estate. The success of McDonalds lies in its omnipresence, the fact that it can rent a space to sell burgers anywhere.)

And so it is with publishing — they’re not in the business to sell books. They’re in the business of building readers and audience. And libraries play a huge, invaluable, massive, important role in that, something Deary clearly needs a big reminder of. Libraries are places where readers are created — people passionate about stories, about the written word, about ideas, about language, about knowledge, and yes, about books. How each author or publisher wants to use libraries as a channel in building readers is up to them, I suppose, but to write off the institution altogether is short-sighted and disheartening. Libraries need to be treated as partners in the work of creating readers, and not like second-class institutions or the red-headed stepchild for poorer relations.

Libraries are where we can take risks in what we read, broaden our tastes, and stumble on discoveries in ways no Amazon algorithm can quantify. They’re where we fall in love with the act of reading and join a larger community of bibliophiles and story hounds, where we’re not confined to our geographic limitations and are only limited by the depths and intricacies of our imaginations and curiosities. Libraries make this world a better place, frankly, and how many institutions can you say that of?

2 thoughts on “Libraries, A Love Story

  1. I’ve read a number of things on Deary’s comments with a pain-squinched face and half-closed eyes – he was SUCH a favourite of mine, and it was a love born in libraries and through lending before I was given a box set (the first box set of anything I owned, and the box was shaped like a TREASURE CHEST!). Not only that, but his Horrible Histories gave me my childhood grounding in social inequality and political economics! Come ON, Terry, I want to cry, and ball my fists.

    This is my favourite post on this matter. Sigh. Libraries<33.

    1. oh, i can’t imagine what it would feel like if you loved an author and then they say stuff like this! it almost feels insulting, esp. when you consider how often his books are borrowed! i get he’d rather you buy the books, but he doesn’t seem to realize that there are tons of people like you who read them first at the library and then get them after! such a pity….

      xo k.

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