What should the role of public libraries be?
What do you think about when you envision a public library?
I think I still first go to being there as a kid. Walking through narrow aisles, looking up at all the books. I knew the Dewey Decimal system early, and I was often heading for non-fiction. There might be only a few books on a particular topic.
I did check out books, but I also read them right there in the library.
I also think of them for their reference desks. They would have huge, expensive, non-circulating titles. I would use those to research something (this would have been when I was older).
I was aware of them having a rare book collection, which they were really preserving, rather than sharing.
I’ve looked up newspaper articles in microfilm.
I also used to wander through the magazine aisles…those were often micro-market titles that were fascinating.
I have used them for internet access when it wasn’t handy (when I was on a jury, for example, and we’d get a lunch break…there was a public library right nearby). Now, of course, I would bring the internet with me.
The time has come for us to seriously think about what the role of a public library should be.
There are disagreements between public libraries and tradpubs (traditional publishers), and I can see a rational on the side of publishers (although I’d prefer that they make the books much more available to public libraries).
Here’s the question:
Should public libraries circulate current, popular, in-copyright books to people who can otherwise afford them?
Sure, it’s great to go a library and borrow a current bestseller (even though you might have to wait for it).
Is that an appropriate role, though?
I know, you figure you paid your taxes for the library, you should have access to everything in it. However, if you paid your taxes for a place with a food program for the disadvantaged, do you feel like you should be able to have lunch there when you are making a good living?
I think we need to break this down a bit.
First, let’s talk about the content…to keep this simple, I’m going to keep it on books.
There are books that are in copyright and books that aren’t. The latter are in the “public domain”…the public owns them. I think it’s a great use of the libraries to make public domain works available…I wish they were doing a lot more of that.
Project Gutenberg is one of the greatest public good works in history.
There has been tremendous, selfless work done by this private organization to preserve and make available public domain works at no cost to users.
While I definitely recognize and admire the work they have done, the government should be doing it.
There should be professionals using high-quality scanning equipment digitizing and reviewing every public domain book possible, and making it available to the public just for the taxes.
That seems to me like a great function for the government, and we do already have the Library of Congress. The books should be preserved regardless of their perceived value, although I know that priorities would have to be used. I have some books in my own collection that I would love to have available to other people, and that will not be high on the government preservation list.
So, I’d like to see public libraries doing much more with public domain.
What about in-copyright books?
I don’t know that I see that as part of a public library’s role any more, when we are talking about the general population.
I’m not quite seeing the clear public good in the latest New York Times bestseller being available through your local public library.
Emotionally, there is a difference for me if it is an expensive work which is harder for people to access. I don’t think that’s logical, though: either public libraries compete with booksellers on in-copyright works, or they don’t.
Now, it’s very different for me for people who are disadvantaged…that’s the second element. I would say we needs-test people, and if they can’t afford the books, that’s where the public library comes into play. The public library should also make EBRs (E-Book Readers) available to the disadvantaged.
I think that’s very important: it shouldn’t be that a $100 book is only available to the upper classes…but it also doesn’t mean we should make it available for free to those who can afford it, in my opinion.
In terms of being preservatories of paperbooks, yes, that’s a very important thing. Those “ephemeral” titles I have, the ones that wouldn’t generally be seen as having lasting value, should be preserved and shouldn’t count on me to do it.
I’d also to see much more universal availability in digital collections. It seems strange to me that somebody in one town doesn’t have access to a public domain title that someone in another town can get.
These are the things I see as the appropriate functions of public libraries in the future:
- Preservation of paper materials
- Digitization and circulation of public domain materials to anyone
- Circulation of in-copyright materials on a needs-tested basis, including the necessary equipment on which to access it
Would that be a radical change? Yes. I see the three of those as absolutely serving the public good, though. I think tradpubs would be more likely to support those ideas.
What do you think? Would taking out the bestsellers make it less likely for the average person to support a library, since it has less value to them? At what level of government could this all happen (city, county, state, federal), and how much of a problem would that be? Should pubic libraries simply go away, and be replaced by private efforts, like Project Gutenberg? Would people be less likely to be attracted to going into the library profession, if it didn’t involve current titles? Feel free to let me and my readers know what you think by commenting on this post.
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.