Libraries and Digital Books

I usually don’t respond off-the-cuff to news stories that come up pretty much on a daily basis, but there’s something in the current discussion of digital books (or ebooks) and libraries that does not make sense to me and I feel the need to explain my position.

I just read an article from BBC News that has five arguments for and against libraries. With the national spotlight on public libraries in the UK, there have been many of these articles lately (I particularly enjoyed Philip Pullman’s eloquent defense of libraries). Now, I could take on each of the “against” arguments, but I won’t. I will say that they seem to be against nominally only, and not if one actually considers what they are saying. Only one of them, the second one, really got my gourd. It’s the one focusing on ebooks and libraries:

2. Digital books

Forget catching a bus to the library to carry home a limited number, yet heavy stack nonetheless, of books.

For those who can afford a portable reader like a Kindle or iPad, the convenience of accessing books on a beach, up a mountain, or anywhere else for that matter, can be irresistible.

But with sales of e-books fast catching up paperbacks, the full impact on traditional publishers has yet to be revealed.

Let me see if I can sum up the sub-arguments here starting with the premise that ebooks are an argument against libraries:

Physical books are inconvenient (“heavy”).

It’s true. Anyone who has ever lugged around the The Riverside Shakespeare knows that books can be heavy. However, during my regular daily routine, my knapsack has rarely been so full of books that I’ve complained. Oh, wait, by rarely I mean NEVER, and I read a lot of books. In any case, my bag can’t hold so many books that I’d ever find it difficult to carry. So while it’s technically true that books can be prohibitively cumbersome, unless you’re a student and have to heave around textbooks anyway, the physicality of books ain’t an issue.

The library only lets you check out a limited number of them (and for a limited time, I’d add).

Okay, yes, there are limits at the library. At the library where I work you are allowed to check out 50 (FIFTY!) items total. You get to have books for three weeks and after that you can renew them assuming no one has placed them on hold. You get charged 30 cents a day for an overdue book. Let’s break that down: The Kindle edition of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol costs $3.99 (let’s round it to four dollars for ease and comfort), that means you can have a book you’ll read in under week and never touch again forever for the price of keeping it for the initial three week loan at the library PLUS forgetting to return it for almost two weeks. Ebook readers have very high limits on how many books they can hold – I don’t know, thousands maybe – but how many books do you need to have on hand at any moment? Can you read two at once? Ebook readers can’t open two at once so it doesn’t matter. Limits depend on need. Does the average person actually need to have access to thousands of books they bought? If the answer is yes, consider that a hundred Dan Brown novels would cost you $399.

Ebook readers are not yet affordable for everyone.

Okay, that’s not really an argument against physical books at all.

The convenience of an ebook reader is “irresistible.”

Perhaps it is. I don’t know. I’ve never had one. But that’s not really the point. I’m sure it is convenient to read novels and lightweight non-fiction using an ebook reader. However, I still feel that the insightful 2001 book The Myth of a Paperless Office by Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper elegantly explains why paper is still the premier medium for intellectual work. $12.72 will get you this book on your Kindle (a used copy is $6.66+shipping and a library copy is free). Just saying. If you’re going to be using this book for writing a paper and want to have it open on your desk at the same time as, say, Ted Nelson’s seminal Computer Lib/Dream Machines (not available for the Kindle, sorry), you won’t be able to. Again, just saying.

The sale of ebooks may overtake paperbacks.

There’s a very frustrating failure in logic that is exhibited by using this as an argument against libraries. To wit, book buyers and library users are not mutually exclusive. I’m not sure why it should matter to the library whether people are buying paperbacks or bitbacks. Even if ebooks become more popular than their physical equivalent the library provides free ebooks for ebook readers. They do it because every day people come in asking how to download ebooks to their devices. I think the major point here is that there have always been people who only read books they’ve bought. Likewise, there are folks who both buy and borrow, or only borrow — ebooks will not change that. Most statistics have shown circulation to be fairly steady over both the long and short terms and most of those stats don’t yet include the circulation of ematerials, which would likely boost the numbers. Furthermore, merely referring to the sales of paperbacks versus their digital counterpart completely ignores the fact that libraries also lend out plenty of other media (along with providing a myriad of other services). Needless to say, using trends in book sales (read: boom in ebooks) to predict the future of libraries is absolutely ludicrous. Anyone who tries to reduce and de-contextualize reality by relying simply on dubiously reported trends does not understand how libraries work.

We don’t know how this will affect traditional publishers.



Unfortunately there is a lot of simplistic thinking going on as clueless pundits and journalists bring the discussion down to the lowest common denominator. Reading some of the comments on articles like this one makes me wonder how it is possible to have a civic discussion when people like that are running around waving their hands. A few examples just because I feel the need to do some hand-waving of my own:

P45 wrote:
“A library allows you to browse the shelves and covers. Search engines reach everything everywhere, but you must define the object first. The design of a cover may attract ..into the sleevenotes… onto an author in the genre…and back to the Web. ” (my emphasis)

Obviously P45 knows very little about the information landscape other than when it comes to ready reference (quick questions like birth dates, simple how-to, directory info). Anybody who does any real research knows that search engines only skim the surface of the internet. The true depth of information is available in the deep web which is provided in a limited capacity to regular people by, yes, you guessed it, subscriptions through libraries, and an information professional’s knowledge. A simple example of what I mean is finding scholarly criticism on the classic novel Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. The Wikipedia entry for this fairly important book is sorely lacking, and the rest of the web does not do much better. Sorry, P45, but when your kids need to do the research, they’ll be out of luck.

Moving on, rsplenum wrote:
“If the searches on the internet became more accurate and tablets became cheap, then we really don’t need libraries.”

Another person who hasn’t a clue about the true dynamics of information commerce. The problem is generally not “accuracy” of web searches but quality of information and its very presence. Not only is there a lot of poorly vetted information online (erroneous directory information, unattributed quotes, poetry/lyric sites with glaring mistakes, wrong information uploaded by well-meaning but misinformed people, or conversely, wrong info uploaded specifically to manipulate consumers), but there is a lot of stuff that isn’t and will never be on the web. Why? Economics and copyright. It costs money and time to upload good info online so if something won’t be profitable for a company or not worth the time of a person who possesses certain documents or knowledge that stuff won’t be put online. At its core, the web is created by people who put stuff up, so if no one puts a piece of information up, it will not magically appear. Copyright restrictions are fairly self-explanatory so I won’t bother here. I will end this long paragraph by saying how foolish it is to say we won’t need libraries because tablets will be cheaper. I can feel my brain melting just considering the statement.

Making an important point for naysayers, voysovsaniti wrote:
“For me – At the end of the day it gets down to money and what are you prepared to pay. Therefore libraries in the main will disappear.
I like going to a library but is it affordable and therefore sustainable? – afraid not.”

Ah yes, the notorious money problem. The awkward thing is just how to make these people understand that they don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to the financial burden libraries put on the “system.” They talk as if libraries are tearing down our financial infrastructure when in fact they are barely a speck of dust when compared to other government entities. Here in Los Angeles in 2008-2009, the library was funded by a whopping 3% of the total budget. And we’re not talking about a small system here, LAPL has 70-something branches and a large well-stocked Central Library. Looking at the last few years of the New York City budgets, the picture is about the same with the library hovering at around 1-2% of the total budget to run 85 branches. As with every government entity there is surely some inefficiency, but there is no way that anyone can say that it is libraries that are responsible for our financial woes. In terms of return-on-investment (ROI), there is no question that libraries are worth every penny spent on them.

In a negative but well-received (by me) comment, Phil Guy wrote:
“Libraries are nothing like they used to be. When I was studying for my Masters exams a few years ago in Brighton I went to the brand new city library to find a quiet place to work. It was far from it though – it was beyond hectic, with children running around and screaming. The book selection was also pitiful – 10 physics books in all. I gave up and went to Starbucks instead. It was more peaceful.”

I do agree that sometimes people get out of hand in libraries since today’s librarians aren’t as stringent about complete silence as they used to be. When I go to the library I bring a pair of headphones just in case it gets noisy. When it comes to poor stock, there are two reasons for this: 1) Budget cuts first reduce book expenditures thus eliminating a library’s ability to buy new physics books. It’s a dreadful cycle we get into when taking on the stock problem. 2) Public library branches tend to stay away from very specialized texts for a great variety of reasons two of which are that they’re typically quite expensive (see number one) and they don’t get used all that often. Still, while there are good reasons for the issues Phil Guy mentions, I do understand his gripe.

There are slightly different comments for differently-slanted articles, but many are variations of the above. I do get some pleasure from writing these replies and my only wish would be to be put in front of these people so I can discuss their feelings with them individually. In general, I feel the same way with the journalist responsible for the article that inspired this fairly long post. If only I could do library interviews all day, I’d tell them all. I’d tell them. Yes I would.

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