Thursday, January 13, 2005

in defense of public libraries

Doverspa, one of the most intellectually honest conservatives I've ever met, has made a radical "Modest Proposal": doing away with public libraries:

First, megastores already allow patrons to enter their stores, grab a book, read it in its entirety while in the store, and not buy it. They recognize that these customers will return and probably buy more as a loyal customer; moreover, the customer could be offended if they are asked to leave or buy the book. This already being the case, the incentive to create a loyal customer base could lead to a more advertised effort to attract "in store readers" would only be strengthened if there were no public libraries competing.

Second, megastores could create a Blockbuster-style rental system if they weren't facing free competition from public libraries. Renting books for a week or two for a couple dollars could be both profitable and a convenient way to build a customer base that may buy books in the future.

Third, the massive donations that go to public libraries could be used more efficiently by creating and distributing membership cards to school age children and those below a certain income level. Right now, public systems must maintain buildings, buy land, pay staff, and fund other operating costs. Buy using the private megastores that already exist, all donations could go directly towards rental fees without duplicating the private investment of megastores.

Thus, the development of widespread megastores gives us an infrastructure to use to make books as widely accessible as under the public system without the cost of duplicating the whole endeavor from buildings to staff.

I am opposed to this for the reason that libraries are not just repositories of books - they serve an integral cohesive role in local communities that no bookstore can hope to replace.

First, librarians choose books for the collections based on concerns other than best-seller lists and marketing. If Borders and B&N replaced libraries entirely, we'd have much less rich a tapestry of literature and instead have aisles of derivative chaff.

Look at the science fiction section of any library and compare it to the B&N section. At the library, youll find older works by Asimov, out of print stuff by Heinlein, rare stuff by Dick and compendiums and anthologies crammed full of short stories that just aren't in print any longer - true treasures. Meanwhile at B&N, you find about fifty nearly identical ripoffs of each other and a pile of movie novelizations. You will find some of the main classics (Foundation, Stranger, etc) but none of the secondary sphere of supporting works). The same analogy can be made with any genre. The point is that blind reliance upon market entities will filter the content in very dramatically different ways than will a professional class. It would be disastrous.

Second, libraries promote a scholarly love of reading amongst even very young children in far more richr ways than a B&N staffed with surly high school wage slaves can hope to match. I whetted my joy of reading at my home town public library's reading programs each sumer, starting from age six. My first job was at that same library, shelving books. My home town has now two decades later expanded that old library to a modern multi-story facility and my visits there revealed a new generation of children and adults, not just reading, but searching for knowledge in all the various mediums that a library has to offer. Libraries are not just for books, they are for movies, newspapers, journals, reference materials, online queries, local government hubs, meeting halls, public continuing education centers, and much much more. The calendar of events at MPPL is just a hint of how integrated the institution is as a resource for the citizens of Mount Prospect.

Third, access to the content in a library is free, and not held hostage to changes in policy. There is a digital divide in this country - libraries still serve as the primary means of access to online resources for a great many working-class stiffs for whom a computer is out of reach. To argue that bookstores would have incentives to make available their resources to the publc for free - or even worse, "rent" their books out - is to impose limitations and conditions upon knowledge itself. As a simple example - would any bookstore provide you the resources to file a Freedom of Information request with your local state government? How can the citizen oversee their representation if they are denied access to the resources freely that they need to hold their elected officials accountable?

Can such an institution be replaced with something as crass as a book store cum-cofee shop? Can an intangible website provide such an anchor to a local community? Can the integrity of a collection be maintained when profit rather than scholarship is the driving motivator? Throwing away the benefits of a library only to have it replaced with a mere... store... is indeed throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There is no better use of taxpayer money than investing in itself.

1 comment:

  1. This plan presumes easy access to megastores. Where I grew up, my family would have to drive two hours to Springfield to find one. Communities can plan to build a library, but they can't force businesses to go there.