Archive for the ‘small libraries’ Category

Friday, April 9th, 2010

Reading alone: How ebooks will kill the smallest libraries

A shelf at a church library catalogued by LibraryThing members. (See other flash-mob cataloging events.)

I’ve argued before (1, 2) that ebooks will hurt or even kill traditional libraries. I’d like to present the even stronger case that ebooks will kill off the small “community” libraries all around us–the shelves and rooms at churches, health centers and many other similar places.

These little, informal lending libraries grow like weeds all around us and contribute to the fabric of social life and community identity. It will be a shame to lose them, but it is probably inevitable.

Ebooks hurt traditional libraries. In brief, the argument is that paper-book libraries made economic sense because libraries owned books like anyone else, but could efficiently organize them to be lent out many times.

This “First Sale Doctrine” falls before the licensed-usage model of contemporary ebooks. It’s not in publishers’ or writers’ interests to allow libraries to buy an item once at a consumer or near-consumer price and lend it out to many people, even serially, forever. Libraries will be forced to pay something closer to the true value of their lending activity, which will cost much more. It will convert libraries from an almost magical value multiplier, into a “simple” book subsidy.

Why are they dead? Ebooks kill small community libraries for the same basic reason—ebooks are and will remain a licensed good, not a freely owned one. The smallest libraries rely on the rights implicit in physical ownership. eBooks change—take back—many of those rights.

This boils down a little differently:
  • Small libraries depend to a large degree on cast-offs and donations. But consumers can’t give their ebooks to anyone when they’re done with them. They’re technically and/or legally locked to a device or personal account.
  • Small collections grow organically and lazily without a “librarian.” It’s unlikely they will be able to negotiate and organize whatever “institutional subscriptions” will be available for public libraries.
  • If community libraries often can’t pay for new paper books, it’s unlikely they will have the funds to engage in high-priced site- or multi-use licensing of books.
  • Public libraries have market power. Even if they can’t preserve first-sale value, they can use their collective and even individual scale to negotiate deals. Small community libraries are too fragmented and casual for market power.
  • Public libraries are connected to real moral and political power, and it pays dividends. For example, although public libraries weren’t even involved in the infamous Google deal, the parties thought it politic to grant public libraries free access to copyrighted books at one terminal per building. This power may come in handy if publishers put the squeeze on them, but the smallest community have neither market or political power.

Counter-arguments. The argument could be made that ebooks will eventually revert to a more traditional “ownership” model. But why? Consumers have already made it clear that they will trade convenience and price to give up traditional rights of resale, lending, donation and inheritance. There has been no large-scale clamor for such rights, and I don’t see one emerging. Rather, as ebooks advance, the personal, non-transferable nature of the medium will become increasingly accepted.

It has also been suggested that, although ebook DRM and contracts will stiffle lending, rampant piracy can function as a sort of rough substitute. If ebook piracy reaches music-piracy levels, this may come about–together with a sharp decline in quality writing which, unlike music, can’t fall back on concert tickets and t-shirts to make ends meet. But either way, small communities will not be involved. Private citizens may trade ebooks, but a church or a senior center will not put its legal neck on the line to engage in a secondary activity like book lending.

What will we lose? At lot more than you might think, particularly if you’re healthy, young and not much of a joiner. But here’s a partial inventory of some the small lending libraries within a mile of two of my home:

  • A dozen churches, some with significant libraries
  • Two synagogues
  • A muslim community center
  • A natural birthing and parenting center
  • An Irish heritage center
  • A handful of exclusive private clubs
  • A Masonic temple
  • An arts and theatre center
  • A welter of general health centers
  • A cancer center
  • A center for grieving children
  • A hospice
  • A homeless shelter
  • A left-wing political action center
  • An advocacy group for Maine children
  • A center for transgender youth
  • A fiber-arts group
  • An Audubon Society
  • The YMCA
  • Semi-ornamental collections in a legion of coffee shops, hotels, restaurants, bars and so forth
  • Two “Bookcrossing zones,” where strangers leave and grab used books
  • A tiny, poor, seldom-open private library that’s been around since 1815 but mostly stocks recent bestsellers

Gloom and Doom? There is another side, of course. We shouldn’t forget that ebooks may well turn out to be an overall boon. Convenience, universal selection and writer-reader disintermediation are powerful, largely positive forces.

It may also turn out that, all things being equal, the “ownership premium”—the extra that books cost because they could be transferred to others—was an unnecessary drag on our lives. If we aren’t paying for true ownership, we can perhaps rent—and read—more. Maybe with books, as with tuxedos, most people are better off renting.(1) Or, to take another example, where we once dug wells, and “owned our own water supply,” we eventually found it was more efficient to socialize the cost of the infrastructure, and pay for usage.

I even expect we don’t even know all the good things ebooks will bring about. I’m not even being sarcastic.

But if something is gained, something will definitely be lost. The list of ebook “externalities” is long: the death of physical bookstores, the wounding or death of traditional public libraries, the concentration of retail power in a few hands, surrendering your reading history to corporations, privacy and censorship issues in undemocratic states, leaving your books to your kids, lending books to friends, showing off, subway voyeurism, etc.

So, to that list, add the death of the smallest libraries.

1. I own my own tuxedo, however, and I wear it whenever I can, dammit.

Labels: ebooks, future of the book, small libraries