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A Perfectly Valid Thought Experiment

September 8, 2014

Last week, we ended thinking about a Forbes op-ed piece that proposed scuttling public libraries and buying everyone a Kindle Unlimited subscription.

This perfectly valid thought experiment was about possibly saving money (in Britain, anyway) and giving everyone instant access to 600,000 titles. Changes in technology and culture seem to be pushing in this direction.

I noted we could actually do this for the current number of active, in-district library users, although it would take more than 90% of our budget.

There are good reasons not to do this. First off, just from the point of view of plenitude, the Salida Regional Library provides instant access to thousands of electronic titles, almost instant access to 80,000 in-house titles, and reasonably fast access to 30 million titles across the Marmot and Prospector library networks.

And—a big point—this access includes new popular titles, which Kindle Unlimited does not. Our library’s ebook collection is in the same boat: The most popular books are usually not available for libraries to purchase and lend as ebooks.

This relationship with publishers continues to change, and along with legal aspects of sharing in a digital culture, it most affects a library’s traditional roles.

It feels as if we’re closer to that digital future, but how close? Perhaps you recall in 1995, as we planned the addition to the Carnegie library, it was proposed that instead we buy everyone a laptop and Internet access because everything was soon to be on the Internet.

So, how true was that? And, would you like to be using a 1995 laptop right now? How many times should we have replaced those laptops for you?

The infrastructure for digital content and access is not cheap. Paper books and brick buildings may be cheaper for society in the end, but we’ll have to wait for that analysis. It’s an apples-and-oranges comparison, anyway.

In comments to the Forbes article, many complained that libraries are about more than books. This is true, but it frustrated the author, whose point was simply that “books” might be delivered better.

But the “more-than-books” capacity of public libraries is important for society, so without setting up the Forbes article as a Straw Man, I will continue with this objection.

If we don’t have public library buildings, we will need some kind of shared space where any of us can go free of charge. The loss of this alone would be a sad step backwards.

In an op-ed piece in the August 31^st New York Times, journalist Masha Gessen reflected on her first visit to Moscow’s first McDonald’s, in 1991. She was meeting someone to talk.

“It was a public space where ordinary people could have a private conversation while eating food they could afford, sold to them by polite staff.” This was not possible at the few other cafes or restaurants available.

“Public spaces of the sort Westerners take for granted simply did not exist.” And could not exist, the author said, in a totalitarian society.

The public library is one such important space in the West, and a particularly important one, being publicly supported.

Sunday morning, as I headed to the library, someone walked by with an armful of books for the book return, and someone else sat on the steps of the old Carnegie library entrance using the library’s wireless and practicing a foreign language.

Perhaps she was using the library’s Mango Languages subscription or just the Internet access. But I was pleased to see them both.

Still, there’s more to discuss about why not to buy everyone a Kindle Unlimited subscription …

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