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Public. Non-commercial. Shared. Is it possible?

July 18, 2011

Last week, someone gave me a copy of a Time Magazine article: “Is a bookless library still a library?”

Actually, what I got was a link in an email. I clicked the link and got (i) an ad, (ii) a prominent link to subscribe to Time, and (iii) part of the article. There are several aspects of a possible future in that.

The best thing in the article is the title’s question. Otherwise, it’s the usual gathering of misunderstandings being copied and pasted around what’s left of the “media.”

Despite the fact that public libraries are busier than ever, the typical newspaper article fears their demise and quotes a librarian on the importance of community space, or a famous author on the influence of browsing the shelves on his successful career, or even the smell of books.

As if sentimentality and nostalgia are the last lines of defense for public libraries. As if reporters prefer the certainty of death over the uncertainty of the digital future. As an astute fellow library columnist pointed out, it’s only natural to hear death knells from a profession that itself is disappearing: journalism.

Just as the role of publishing and journalism in a digital world is changing and, thus, uncertain, so is the role of libraries. The details of the library role are unknown but the existence of public libraries is more certain.

Public libraries are about sharing. They are cooperative purchasing projects. We pool our money, make a public library, and share a larger collection than any of us alone could have access to.

How will this happen in a digital world? Publishers and copyright holders are justifiably nervous and currently think more of how to sell stuff and prevent sharing, and yet systems do exist for allowing “borrowing” of digital stuff, such as ebooks.

This ability will evolve under the influence of at least two forces from the public library universe. One is that our society will balk at a legal environment in which we can no longer share the content of our culture. The other is that libraries have been a major market for most books, and I think that will continue.

Right now, most owners of ebook readers buy their ebooks, unless they’re reading only classics freely available via the Internet. Most of the inquiries I’ve received about borrowing ebooks have come from owners of the Amazon Kindle.

This makes sense. The Kindle is designed to work through Amazon’s service, which encourages purchase, not sharing. Heavy readers start to feel the pain.

The ebook service we will start this Fall, from a company called Overdrive, doesn’t yet work with Kindle, but Amazon has promised this will change by year-end.

I had mistakenly assumed Amazon would open up the Kindle to read the standard ebook file format, but no. Amazon will merely provide Kindle-formatted versions of books for the Overdrive service.

Libraries using Overdrive service pay a premium price for something they should be able to do themselves, and efforts are underway to move in that direction.

The issues are merely technical and legal, all easily solved if we want. “We” means all of us as a society.

The Time article mentioned above discusses the value of libraries in ways that are dear to my heart, such as browsable shelves, although I’ve smelled too many different kinds of book smells to care much about that.

But, for example, public, non-commercial space is an important thing for any community. It’s also a natural consequence of an institution in which we all share.

Public. Non-commercial. Shared. Is it possible?

Just visit your local library.


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One Comment
  1. Vicky permalink

    Dear Jeff:

    As a student in Taiwan, I enjoyed taking advantage of public or private library which plays a very important role for me during the period of my growing up.

    In the freshmen year of my high school in Taipei, I was chosen by my classmate as a “Plein Air” member of school; it was an honor for me to represent my class as a member. when most of freshmen went home in the afternoon of Saturday, the members must stay in school, and one art teacher would teach us art theory; after that, we would choose a location around school for painting, however, I always thought it was still not enough for my loving in art, hence, once I had the time, I always went to a private library located in the tenth floor of Roosevelt building in Roosevelt Road.

    They said that the library’s owner was a painter who used to study art abroad, so over there I could find many of imported art books; I was very excited to browse the impressionistic book, especially for Claude Monet; hence I usually lingered there in my freshmen year. Until reaching junior year, I declined to join the Plein Air member, for I never wanted to become an artist, although I like art, however, when I looked back at that private library, I was very appreciative of the service it provided, but the most important thing was that it enriched my life.

    I would like to share three haiku of mine with everybody —

    Lotus Flower

    A boon to my fair skin
    Is the umbrella I hold
    Come rain or come shine


    Chinese style, not French
    The lucky doggie is you?
    Catch! a flower ball

    Shrub Althaea

    Before sunset
    Vanity is my beauty
    Fading into memory


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