Last week was a hard one for readers, with Penguin pulling out of the library market by curtailing its agreement with Overdrive, possibly for allowing Amazon to directly lend files to patrons. It’s left a lot of us feeling markedly less charitable about large publishers.
I had a feeling it wouldn’t be an easy week. It started with a hard and passionate discussion on a mailing list for public library directors on the amount of support given the homeless that frequent urban libraries. Many homeless must maintain their belongings in large parcels or boxes that could block public access and potentially pose a security risk. If a library prohibits containers beyond certain dimensions, are they discriminating against the homeless because there’s no secure storage outside the library? Can they make a special allowance for baby strollers and childcare gear? Yet every librarian wanted to avoid making the homeless feel unwelcome, because they have a right to be in the library just like anyone else. Balancing competing expectations across people from very different backgrounds is part of what librarians do every day.
And more disturbing things as well. In the middle of the week, I had lunch with a friend who is director of a small urban library near San Francisco in what many people would describe as a pleasant community, with a mix of wealthy and working people from different backgrounds. She discussed having to deal with a growing number of methamphetamine addicts, including one recent individual who, screaming loudly, was threatening the library’s patrons and staff with the pair of scissors he was wildly waving about. The library director courageously enticed him outside, engaging him in a conversation about what exactly he wanted to do with the scissors, while her staff frantically called the police. Having to cope with crazed meth-heads in the library is disturbingly common, even as librarians struggle to shield it from their patrons.
These same librarians, who one moment are fending off someone badly damaged, minutes later might receive a visit from an old woman wanting to donate $50 every month from her retirement pay so her granddaughter will have good books to read after her elementary school is out. It’s enough to make you want to cry. Every goddamn day.
And so hearing that Penguin, one of the six largest publishers in the United States, was willing to make libraries collateral damage in a skirmish they hadn’t chosen somehow seemed a fitting end to the week, even though we had only reached Thursday. I know that Penguin has many very hard working and dedicated professionals who care deeply about publishing, and that they must make decisions that strike them as difficult about what they can publish, and the bold risks that their authors take. But all I could think about on Friday was wanting to ask the CEO of Penguin, “Have you ever been so afraid for your staff, so concerned about their safety, that you’ve tried to get them certified on Tasers?” Because I know librarians who have.
Benefiting one, benefiting others.
When I was in Dallas recently for ALA Midwinter, one of the things I noted to my chagrin was the paucity of curb cuts in some of the heavily frequented downtown areas, at least compared to the San Francisco Bay Area, where they are ubiquitous. Although street to sidewalk leveling was originally intended to facilitate equal access by the disabled, it has famously become an example of a case where benefiting one group ends up unexpectedly providing a boon to many others. The heated and often litigious debates about disabled access were quickly brought to mind as I creakily dragged my body up to the sidewalk, then down to the street, and back up to the sidewalk; I wondered how mothers with baby strollers were faring.
Ebooks are curb cuts for libraries. For those of us struggling financially, or wiped out after an long day without the time or transportation to get to the local library, or physically disabled and unable to easily move around, being able to take advantage of the tremendous convenience of downloading a book onto a e-reader or mobile phone literally means the difference between reading and not reading. And I realized by the end of the week that this purposeful denial of equal access is what infuriates me most about the actions of publishers against libraries. At the moment when we have the opportunity to improve the lives of many of our neighbors, publishers concern themselves with competitive positioning and an appropriate amount of “friction” in library access.
I know that Penguin has made statements indicating they value libraries and are having discussions with alternative lending intermediaries — who presumably will not make Amazon’s ebooks available to their patrons as carelessly as Overdrive; Lord no. But from Penguin, and large publishers generally, there has been a striking paucity of engagement with librarians about their larger obligations to our communities. Libraries are not auto parts dealers, and Penguin is not an automobile manufacturer, unhappy that a distributor is making non-OEM parts available to consumers. Not permitting libraries to lend ebooks means that some people have less opportunity in their lives than others. That requires a better explanation than being scared about the revenue impact of letting people read for free without having any data to back it up.
For now, there are books.
I am very sympathetic to the sobering prognosis that in the longer run there’s not much future for libraries in providing access to ebooks. If for no other reason, it is likely that ebooks will evolve into a great variety of objects, some of which are widely distributed on the net and not neatly packaged; many others will be enhanced into proprietary versions that will only work on a single platform. Before that happens, libraries will have to transition to places that help citizens become full-fledged creative members of their communities, producing and archiving personal content.
But while we work to make that transition as empowering as possible, a considerable portion of human expression is still delivered in books that are the hard product of authors, waiting to enlivened by readers. While creative work should be compensated, nowhere is it written that every exchange of literature must be a commercial one. Nor shall we take it as a matter of faith alone that access to free information in one sector will necessarily negatively impact its commercial success in another; indeed, history and experience have repeatedly shown otherwise. It must not be our want to create divisions among us in the opportunity to benefit from knowledge. It is our want to encourage literacy, a love of reading, and an engagement with the world.
To those who would deny our access to books solely out of their fear: beware, for we are measuring our loss.