What should the role of public libraries be?

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.


39 Responses to “What should the role of public libraries be?”

  1. Edward Foster Says:

    Buffo Calvin,
    You wrote this one just for me didn’t you? 🙂

    First let me tell you how thankful I am that you continue to discuss this issue. I think it is a particularly important one at this point in time.
    And I will also agree that it is silly and even a little bit shameful that we are depending upon the good will of a very small community of people to get public domain titles digitized. This is clearly a public good that can and should be provided for by public institutions and funds.

    But on the issue of the value and purpose of public libraries going into the future, I must say I disagree nearly completely.

    The value of the public library is, in my opinion, much greater than you intimate. There is much more at stake than either the ability of those who could otherwise afford them (and who gets to decide that?) to check out and read the latest best seller, or providing access to those who do not have the financial means to do so.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. The social good of providing access to information to those with limited financial means is HUGE. The public library remains one of the great equalizers in society and anything that threatens that should be vigorously opposed. And I must admit, that one of the reasons I am so dubious of the means testing idea, is that I fear that would indeed mean the death of the public library, and the end of access to information to those who cannot otherwise afford it.

    Aside: A recent note out of the UK is important I think. In a statement I read recently, and official said something to the effect of, contracts (licenses) cannot be used to dodge copyright laws and especially the fair use provisions of them. I agree completely. The fact that we have changed the format from paper to electrons doesn’t change the underlying principles we have as a society institutionalized, or which made public libraries possible.

    The value of the public library remains intact. The public library plays a vital role, still today, in providing, especially to young people, insight into the power and value of ideas and words. Where else can a child examine thousands of books and check out anyone they want? The public library provides, beyond the best seller list, access to up to date, primary sources that are not available through Wikipedia and would not be reasonable for an individual to purchase on their own. The public library provides everyone who walks through the door access to an information professional who can point them to the resource they need to finish their middle school term paper, or their next great read.

    I am rather heartened actually that some of the information coming out around this issue is rather hopeful. Many of the traditional publishing houses are indeed working to find a reasonable and equitable solution to this question. While there are plenty of difficulties, and it is not a simple question, how to reimburse publishers and authors fairly for their work in the digital age, I don’t see how this in anyway affects the value of the public library. Indeed, the ability of an individual to visit the public library from a $100 tablet, a cell phone, the school computer, makes it even a greater public good, in my rarely humble opinion.

    Thanks Buffo, this is a great and important question!

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      Oh, I don’t at all underestimate the value of public libraries! I’ve actually said before that if the choice was closing the public schools or closing the public libraries, I would close the schools and put literacy instructors in the libraries. Self-guided unrestricted learning would be better than not guided restricted access. That, by the way, coming from someone who often is that “interpreter” between the data and the consumer of it.

      If, though, as I suggest, there were millions of public domain titles available, equally, would the loss of the availability of in-copyright, for profit works be that important? That’s the question for me. I’m not convinced we’ll be able to have both in the future. I think someone would question the strength of your statement that “…Many of the traditional publishing houses are indeed working to find a reasonable and equitable solution to this question.” Reasonable and equitable are far harder to define, I think, than the needs-testing question. We already use needs-testing for many things, so the infrastructure is in place. A simple (but probably insufficiently comprehensive) answer would be to say that if you are eligible for food stamps, you are eligible for in-copyright public library loans. The poverty level could also be used. Now, someone who can (just) afford food may not be able to afford books, so it’s possible it would need to be higher.

      I also have said before that I would like to see a considerable expansion of “Fair Use”, allowing copyrighted books to be used in schools and for non-profit research purposes in a much broader way than happens now. I knew this post might be controversial…for another controversial one where I discuss Fair Use, see this one:


      I’m very passionate about access to information, but I’m also practical. I’d rather see public resources being used to do something that private resources don’t…that creates more cooperation and less competition, in my opinion.

      Thanks for a thoughtful comment!

  2. B.Kessel Says:

    Wow Bufo! I have to say that I was a bit offended by the message and tone of this post. I will try to keep my comments neutral, even though it appears the current political concepts on what we all “owe” the government have managed to creep into your commentary.

    “Should public libraries circulate current, popular, in-copyright books to people who can otherwise afford them?”

    “Is that an appropriate role, though?”

    You’ve taken an institution that I love and support and made a comparison to collecting food stamps. Should I feel guilty the next time I walk in to my public library because I make enough to buy every book I should ever want to read?

    I’ve always viewed the library as a unique institution that brings all groups of people together in their passion of reading, regardless of race, religion, economic status, team affiliation (even Cubs fans:).

    But this paints it as another entitlement program that needs to run by the government.

    You describe Project Gutenberg as “one of the greatest public good works in history.” And then in the next breath say “the government should be doing it.” WHY?

    You state that there should be “professionals using high-quality equipment…” I totally agree. But maybe your confusing “professionals” with “government”.

    I understand your passion. I share it! But I continue to see the public and private sector working together to advance our society– including our libraries. Your tone suggests its all up to the government and should be made free to only those in need.

    On another note:

    I do agree the “role” of the library should and will change. It has before and it continues to do so.

    As far as competing on in-copyright works, the libraries can’t compete because publishers wont allow them. I understand publishing. I’ve worked in medical publishing for 15 years.

    Publishers today garnish more profit than ever before with ebooks (inventory, paper, printing costs, mail and transportation costs — all reduced) yet they have worked to increase library lending costs, reduce lending numbers, and limit or remove titles that the libraries can even obtain. Publishers seem to have become the enemy of libraries.

    This is a fascinating topic, thanks for offering an avenue to explore it.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, B.!

      I appreciate you making a reasoned response, even when you were offended. That’s not all that common. 🙂

      I should be clear that I”m not saying that Project Gutenberg shouldn’t continue doing what is it doing, even if the government gets more involved in making public domain works available.

      The reasons why I think the government should increase its involvement are:

      * It serves the public good
      * It is resource intensive
      * It costs more than it generates in income

      I expected this to be a controversial position…I know there are people who think the government shouldn’t be involved in public works projects (like schooling and infrastructure). There are people who think that the public road system should be privatized, for example, with toll roads being one income source.

      For me, this is exactly the sort of thing that the government should do. I think it has a tremendous return on investment for the society…and a return that is not available to the private sector in such as way as to encourage the necessary expenditure, in my opinion.

      I’ve written before about the conflicts between publishers and the public libraries, and that’s precisely one reason why I think that removing the competition on in-copyright titles would be effective. Serving the disadvantaged isn’t competition, because they couldn’t buy the books anyway. While there is some competitive aspect in providing public domain works to those who can afford them, traditional publishers have usually added some content to that. I don’t think they see Project Gutenberg as competition for them…or let’s say, as significant competition.

      I certainly like having a public library available to me, but I think this is a question we need to consider. Will we have no public libraries, in part because the publishers won’t cooperate with them? Or will we have thriving public libraries that serve markets and content that the publishers don’t?

      I’m enjoying the discussion so far, and I think these issues need to be examined. I’m sure people will agree with you: “I paid taxes for the library, so I am entitled to it the same as anyone else in any other economic circumstance.” Again, I’d compare that to eating in a meal program for the disadvantaged. If people who can afford it do it, that consumes valuable resources, and challenges the existence of the program.

  3. Zebras Says:

    When I was a child, the library was a necessity, my family had no budget for books, let alone the quantity that I was capable of reading. As I got older and could afford my own books, I tended to buy as my tastes weren’t always the same as what the library had on offer. However, I really do feel the library is for all of us, and I don’t think people should have their services limited because they could have afforded it otherwise.

    But, as much as I love the ability to borrow books on my Kindle from my local library, I don’t think the best use of their limited budget is providing us with multiple copies of Fifty Shades of Gray or even Harry Potter. I say this even though I am one of those people who borrowed them, since they were available to be borrowed. I do think more care should be taken in choosing content both in paper and electronically when the budget is limited.

    At this point, you can buy a Kindle for $69, and never spend another dime between public domain, freebies, and library borrowing, and I don’ think most people realize that.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Zebras!

      Yes, the resource expenditure for bestsellers is a great point. They can’t just have one copy (or license) or Harry Potter or Fifty Shades. That would frustrate people, and reduce public perception of the value of the library. I’m just not convinced that they should use their limited resources to serve that market.

      Yes, I like having the ability to get current books from my public library…sure, it’s fun. Is that, though, the best role for the library in the future? That’s what this post is examining.

      A key thing for me is that the library used to have books I couldn’t get easily. Now, I would bet that there isn’t one book available to me through my public library (for circulation) that I can’t get easily somewhere else (on the internet). That’s another thing that’s changed…

  4. Kim Says:

    “For me, this is exactly the sort of thing that the government should do. I think it has a tremendous return on investment for the society…and a return that is not available to the private sector in such as way as to encourage the necessary expenditure, in my opinion.”

    No, no, no. Please don’t give Project Gutenberg to the government! As you said, PG is doing a great job. If the government became involved, it would want more of our tax dollars to do the work. Someone would have to decide what works to digitize. Disagreements would follow. Who decides what our tax dollars pay to digitize? Every work ever written? Only worthwhile texts? What is worth our time and money? What about censorship? Let PG continue to do the wonderful work that they are already doing. They accept donations of money on their site. Frequent users should definitely consider giving a few dollars to them occasionally.

    “Will we have no public libraries, in part because the publishers won’t cooperate with them? Or will we have thriving public libraries that serve markets and content that the publishers don’t?”

    This statement assumes that publishers will always have the power to prevent libraries from having access to books. I think the days of publishers as (the only) gatekeepers are limited.

    I agree with B. Kessel (wish he had a “like” button) even though I rarely use a public library. I buy my books because I don’t want to give them back. However, I believe public libraries should serve the entire public. The analogy with the food program for the needy isn’t the same because, if I ate the food, someone else might go hungry. If I borrow a book from the library, someone may have to wait a bit longer to read it but they could still read it. I am not taking that privilege from them.

    I would also hate to see libraries become just another program for the poor. I believe the quality would decline drastically. Almost everything targeted at only lower income people suffers in quality (schools, housing projects, medicaid). I believe the poor are better served when the divisions do not exist. Libraries should serve the entire community equally.

    This is a very interesting discussion.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Kim!

      Once again, a nicely written comment. 🙂

      I am not saying and have not said that Project Gutenberg should be taken over by the government. I think they should continue to do what they have been doing, choosing the works they want to choose.

      What I think should happen is that the government, which already makes some public domain works available through the Library of Congress website


      among other places, should do more of that.

      Since they are already doing it, all of your questions about process must have been addressed in some way. If people didn’t like the works they chose to digitize, then of course, they can and should contribute to places like Project Gutenberg and Archive.org (although I’m not sure that contributors have more impact there on which works are done than they would on a public library, which is indirectly subject to the voters).

      I’m curious: how do you think the power of publishers to license or not license works to public libraries will be removed? While public pressure could be a factor, the traditional way would be government regulation, and based on your other comments, I’d be a bit surprised if that is what you are suggesting. I’ve suggested in the past that tax incentives, such as have encouraged publishers to donate paperbooks in the past, could be used. Otherwise, I’m not quite sure what takes that power away from them. There might be a parallel with TV cable licensing, where they were required to provide a public access channel. There has been some great, quality programming that has come out of that, but I’m not a big fan of regulation.

      The contrasting of the food and the book was interesting. In both cases, I think what would happen is that the provider would want to spend more money to make more copies of the books or food available. I do seem them as parallel. Yes, if you ate the food and they ran out, a person might go hungry that day. If you borrowed a book, so there wasn’t a copy/license available, a person might not have it. Some book borrowings are, of course, time sensitive, such as a required report for school…or maybe something on treating a medical condition at home. However, in both cases, I think that you borrowing it would contribute to one of two things (assuming there is a scarcity). The providing agency would try to raise more money to meet the demand…or would cease operating since they can’t meet the demand (which might, in turn, make it difficult to raise money).

      I do agree that programs designed to serve the disadvantaged often have a lower quality output. However, in the three points I made, libraries would also be serving the middle and upper class, albeit with public domain materials. For the in-copyright materials, I think you could see significant publisher involvement, which would keep the quality somewhat higher. With an e-book, there’d be no real motivation to produce a lower quality version, since production costs after the book is done are not much of a factor. Bureaucracy could make it more cumbersome to get the books…but right now, the same bureaucracy exists without many of the books being available.

      I agree…good discussion!

  5. A brief review on the accessibility of library resources in your own context. | My Mind Bursts Says:

    […] What should the role of public libraries be? (ilmk.wordpress.com) […]

  6. tuxgirl Says:

    This is one post of yours where that I disagree with almost entirely.

    First off, I think it’s good for a library to have current in-copyright, popular books available. I know a lot of people who, while they have plenty of money, would not spend it on books. Reading isn’t something they enjoy as much as other activities. However, I think that people reading (especially parents) is a net positive in the world, *even* if it’s something that some readers consider to be less of a “good” reading item.

    A lot of people criticize the Twilight series as being junk, poor writing, etc. I personally see it as books that got a *ton* of young people reading books that they otherwise would not have read. I was talking to a friend whose son was told by a teacher in school that he shouldn’t read the “goosebumps” series, because it wasn’t good literature, and he should be reading something more appropriate to his level. His mother was upset because she had *finally* found a series of books that he was actually interested in, and would read without her having to hassle and nag him constantly. I feel strongly that just about *any* reading is better than not reading, because it can open the door to further reading.

    On the issue of need-based libraries, I don’t think there’s any benefit to that. Just because I *could* pay for books, why would that make it a bad thing for me to check them out? Should I have to buy *all* the books my daughter wants to read, even though they are available in the library? Certainly, I’d like to have some books that are hers, but I don’t want to buy every single book she wants to read… And since she’s still at an age (3) where I choose to limit her access to electronics, I don’t want to *store* every book she ever reads. She has a lot of books, and we don’t need more in our house, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to give her some variety of book that we read together (plus, I need some variety!)

    I also like being able to sometimes read books without paying for them. There have been quite a few books that I have borrowed from the library where I honestly wouldn’t have read the book if I had to pay for it. I enjoy the books, but I like to keep our budget as low as possible to allow for savings, etc. Yes, we *have* the money for the book, but I don’t see what’s wrong with my borrowing it… Enough of my money goes to paying for benefits I don’t use… why can’t I have one benefit that comes from my tax money that I can actually use?

    As for PG, I don’t think any government agency would ever do as good as they do. If you are concerned because you have physical books in your possession that are public domain but haven’t been digitized, why don’t you digitize them? If you scanned them, you could create a project on PG, and the volunteers there would help make them into an ebook that everyone could benefit from. I like the fact that, on PG, *anyone* can start the process of digitizing a book that they want to see saved. There’s no need for a bunch of red tape or decision-makers. Nobody has to sit there and determine if a book is “worthy” of being saved. All that’s required is that someone have a copy that can be scanned and uploaded, and that somebody work it through the system. If the government is going to get involved in *any* way with the digitizing, I honestly think the most useful thing they could do is provide either funding or technology to PG, and then get out of their way. (unfortunately, I can’t imagine them doing that… any money they would give would end up having strings attached…)

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, tuxgirl!

      Well, you don’t say if this is the first time you’ve disagreed with me to this extent, but if it is, it had to happen sometime. 😉

      Many of the things I read when I was a child would be categorized by some teachers as…not worthwhile. That goes for all science fiction, for example. I always consider myself very fortunate that I was able to take a science fiction elective in high school.

      However, I’m not quite seeing the connection between that and public libraries having or not having current books. Is it that the school library would have a more heavily curated selection? By the way, it was a school librarian that gave our kid a Goosebumps book…and nightmares and lifelong fears resulted from it…

      There are two main reasons that I see why needs-based libraries (which would be a radical shift, I know) would work:

      * There are limited resources. When someone checks out a book, paper or e-book, that makes that book (unless it is an e-book in the public domain with unlimited licenses) not available to someone else. Not being able to meet the demand increases the need for resources on the part of the library…the politicians hear from dissatisfied library patrons. When someone checks out a book just because they like doing that, even though they could have bought it, it makes it unavailable for someone who could not have purchased it. While that is a convenience for the person of means, I’m not sure that sort of convenience is going to be enough to make libraries a justified expense

      * Publishers are more likely to embrace a library system that they do not see as competition. One which is distributing public domain materials to everyone, and in-copyright materials only to those who would not otherwise have bought them, would (in my opinion) see much greater support from publishers. Support from publishers means both more material and more financial donations

      One of the key things to me is that I think the use of books is changing with e-books. I think a lot more people who borrowed a p-book from the library later bought it than people who borrow an e-book from the library. There is so much to read, easily available, and much of it free, that I think ownership and re-reading have declined in importance to people. I know I certainly have a lot more challenge keeping up. Given that, a library loan to a potential customer is a lot more problematic for a publisher than a library loan of a p-book.

      To be clear, I loved the ability to borrow books from the library, even when I could afford them. I don’t want to discourage reading in any way…I think having millions of public domain titles available would encourage it, and having needs-tested availability of in-copyright titles would also encourage it.

      It’s not the best solution for everyone, but I think it is possibly a more workable situation than continuing in the current modus operandi.

      • Tuxgirl Says:

        I can’t get behind the idea of having libraries financed by taxes that are only available for those who demonstrate financial need. I honestly think a lot of libraries would end up closing because taxpayers would be unwilling to vote for their taxes going to yet another program that they aren’t able to take advantage of.

        One option might be to have a sliding scale of prices for a library card, though. So, if someone is low income, they get a free library card, while someone with a higher income pays 10$ or 20$ for the library card. I would also say that perhaps there could be a limited card offered that Allowed checkouts of any book in the children’s section (and maybe some adult nonfiction section s) that would be free as well. Or, you could have a price that allowed for 1-week checkouts, and a different-priced card that allowed for longer checkouts?

        I understand what you mean when you say that the books are a finite resource, but in my mind, that doesn’t justify the government telling me I have to pay to provide availability to other people but that I’m not allowed to use it. If my taxes are supporting the library, I should be allowed to borrow from it.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Tuxgirl!

        I think a sliding scale is a possibility…as might be something with check-out for kids (although that’s an important and lucrative market for publishers).

        I think we see taxes and the return on them a bit differently. 🙂 I know this is politics, and I won’t pretend to be an authority there. I expect my taxes to go for the public good, not for my personal good. For example, I’m not allowed to attend third grade any more (although it would be fun for a day, I’m sure), but my taxes go to pay for that. My taxes go to research diseases which I am biologically incapable of getting, and I’m fine with that, too. My taxes go for literacy programs, which I don’t need…and I’m happy they do.

        For me, libraries could (in a future configuration), fall into that same category. They wouldn’t benefit me directly, but would make society better, and that works for me.

        I believe that people tend to approve bond measures for libraries, and that might work well for both our viewpoints. People who would want to buy the bonds and support the library (even if they didn’t plan to use it), could do that.

        While people don’t tend to vote directly for taxes (as opposed to bonds), I think the restricted availability of tradpub books is a bigger threat than needs-testing would be, but that’s just my opinion.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, tuxgirl!

      I didn’t address your last paragraph, and I wanted to do that…but was long-winded enough already. 🙂

      Right now, each individual determines if a book is worthy of being digitized or not. I don’t see any particular reason that will make it more likely for books to get digitized than if a government agency, tasked with digitizing books, is doing it. Remember, they are already doing it…just not as much as I think would be good. If they were seen as successful based on the number of books they digitized and made available to the public, that would be a good incentive.

      Second, I have digitized books, in my work with a non-profit. It’s a tedious, complex process, unless you want to tear the book apart (which I didn’t want to do). There are machines that can digitize the book relatively quickly and with no damage…but I don’t own one of those. A government agency could own them…banks of them. They could also have people doing it eight hours a day, not a luxury I have. We did make them available to the public, by the way, but I’m sure not many people have gotten them (although I suspect they’ve been packaged and re-sold by other people, which is legal). If they were available from a central resource, many, many more people would read them.

      I keep going back to this in the comments, but I don’t have any desire to see the government replace what Project Gutenberg is doing…I want them to also be digitizing. Nothing I see would prevent the Project Gutenberg process from continuing just as it is.

      Project Gutenberg has, on average, digitized about a thousand books a year since starting in 1971 (they are at about 40,000 titles). I’m sure that’s accelerated recently, but wouldn’t it be nice if, in addition to that, the government was digitizing a thousand books a day? That would be a teeny tiny expenditure for the government to do. I’d rather have them make, say, 300,000 public domain books available to everybody in the country in a year then have local libraries have to shell out for expensive licenses for current bestsellers.

      Those are just my thoughts on it, though.

  7. B.Kessel Says:

    Tuxgirl has a point when it comes to ownership. Even in the electronic realm of ebooks, I don’t necessarily want to own every book I read. There is added value to just being able to “borrow” a book.

    The New Library
    I am not apposed to giving money to advance my local library. Public Radio is freely available, yet I have given to that resource.

    Here are some things I wish libraries would consider that could help the library and possibly appease publishers holding back from fully supporting the ebook loaning system:
    – A patron system in which I could pay $2.00 (or some figure) to rent an ebook (just like a loan) however, the proceeds from the rental vs. borrow would go towards increasing the variety and quantity of ebook titles. Publishers have appeared to really limit numbers of borrowing cycles on ebooks, so more titles are needed. Right now if I bought a best seller book, read it and then donated it to the library, they do not integrate it into the system. They just resell it for money.
    – Limit the checkout time on ebooks to significantly less time. Frankly some of the time built into the checkout/return cycle is just getting around to returning the book.
    – Limit the number of e-devices that the borrowed book can be read on to 1 or 2. Amazon offers (as dictated by the publisher) the ability for several devices in a single Kindle account to read a title. When I check out a Kindle book from my local library its available to many if not all my devices (8 devices).
    – Libraries still think regionally. With ebooks, physical inventory is not the issue — but cost and budgeting still is. If libraries could pool digital resources they would be able to offer more variety to more people. (see PPG additional comment below)

    As far as a Public Project Gutenberg: (PPG)

    – Create a division in the library that specializes in preservation and electronic conversion of public domain works. Donated works would be made available to the public thru this system. This division could possibly work hand in hand with PG.

    – Develop a regional or national PPG system within the library system. The library system is a wonderful neighborhood system. But unfortunately, they are splitting resources that could be combined across townships, counties or even states. They are thinking brick and mortar when they need to be thinking differently. They are operating with one hand behind their backs. An electronic PPG system could break these boundaries.

    – Leverage the neighborhood. Ok, so I’ve been beating the libraries up for thinking so locally. But its a strength too. I would be more excited taking public domain titles to a local library unit to have converted/utilized than sending to Project Gutenberg. Volunteers, especially retired folks would love to be involved in such a project.

  8. Kim Says:

    In answer to the question:

    “I’m curious: how do you think the power of publishers to license or not license works to public libraries will be removed?”

    I don’t think that the power of publishers to license works will be completely removed. Just lessened. I think publishers are already losing some of their power. Several of my most recent book purchases (ebooks) were from favorite authors who previously were traditionally published but now make available new books independently. I expect that this trend will continue as authors become more comfortable with the process. In those cases the authors themselves could decide whether or not to allow library lending. I also have purchased books published by Amazon. In those cases, Amazon would decide whether to allow lending from libraries. I think publishers will continue to lose at least some of their power as authors have more options for making books available to the public and more control over the finished product.

    And a (somewhat) related question of my own:

    “Publishers are more likely to embrace a library system that they do not see as competition. One which is distributing public domain materials to everyone, and in-copyright materials only to those who would not otherwise have bought them, would (in my opinion) see much greater support from publishers.”

    Why would I visit a library to obtain public domain materials when I can get them for free from places like PG and even the kindle store?

    I think that most middle and upper income Americans already have almost instant access to public domain works if they choose to read them. It is possible that someone may not have internet access or the computer skills to download them but I think that is becoming less common, especially among middle and upper income people. I could be mistaken but I don’t think public domain titles will draw many people to libraries.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Kim!

      We agree on a lot of this.

      Especially with “rights reversion” happening this year on books published in 1978, and rolling forward, the power of traditional publishers will be, as you say, lessened. However, I do think they’ll continue to control some of the most popular books for some time.

      As to your question:

      Most (but not all) of the public domain books you see, including at Amazon, were originally digitized by Project Gutenberg…in all probability. By definition, Project Gutenberg can not control the use of the books themselves, since you and I (and the rest of the public) own them. They create them, presumably Amazon and other people redistribute them.

      That’s only about 40,000 titles out of millions, though. I don’t think that people would be drawn into the public library to get the books, but that people through taxes and donations, would support the effort. The libraries don’t need to control the output, they just need to create it.

      That said, having them centrally available in a platform independent fashion would, I think, attract people. If I could go to LOC.gov and instantly (and thoroughly searchably) have available millions of books, I would do it. No reason why Amazon and Barnes & Noble couldn’t have an LOC.gov portal on their sites…and they could pay the LOC to license that.

      So, I wouldn’t expect you to visit a physical library, or even necessarily go directly to the library website to take advantage of the books they have digitized. Once they did, within a very short period of time people would be distributing them online (and those people might charge for them, especially for curated collections).

    • Tuxgirl Says:


      you might be surprised at the number of people (even people who are generally highly educated) who have absolutely no idea of what the public domain is, or that books do eventually drop out of copyright. Tons of people don’t realize that they can get classics for free! Many assume that any downloading of something they didn’t pay for must be piracy, because the riaa/mpaa have brainwashed them to assume that. But a lot of them just don’t know what’s out there. I’ve told tons of people who were utterly astonished that they could get classics for free. 🙂

  9. ccabek Says:

    l have a very uncomfortable feeling about your view on libraries for just people who can not afford the “popular” books. PG is doing a great service, but many of us don’t read the classics after high school english or required reading in college. l happen to be an avid reader but l love my escapist books ( mainly Sci-fi ).
    l think many people who do read “junk” for fun and entertainment do not want to spend $30.00 for the hard cover of a new novel. This is one reason many people like to use the library.

    I don’t know how you would decide who is wealthy enough to not be able to use the facility.
    Or why anyone should have the power to decide what is good for me to read because l am elitist enough to be able to purchase a book rather than borrowing it.
    It becomes a form of censorship.
    Or on the other hand, to get rid of libraries completely reminds me of Nazi / or fascist / dictatorship regimes. No books allowed unless “approved” reading that some group has O.K.ed
    for certain groups only.
    l see way too many problems with the elimination of our publc libraries.
    As for myself, personally, l am addicted to my Kindle, and l purchase the books for it. l haven’t tried to get them via my library because l am too lazy to find out how to do it.
    Most of the books l buy and try are the new authors and the sale books. lf some of my favorite popular authors have released a new novel l do buy those…even though l think something is quite wrong with an e-book costing the same if not more than a paperback. l just wish the bulk of the money from ebooks went mainly to the authors.

    So ends my opinion on public libraries…leave them alone.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, ccabek!

      Let me explain my point of view a bit more clearly, and perhaps you won’t be as uncomfortable. Some of the ways that you’ve stated my position suggest that we are seeing what I was saying somewhat differently, so explaining it more may help. In the end, of course, we may still have different opinions, and that’s fine.

      First, as an avid science fiction reader, you’ll be happy to know that many of those books are in the public domain. While I am an eclectic reader myself, anybody looking at my library would see a preponderance of science fiction and fantasy. Many of those paperbooks on my shelves are now in the public domain. Here is the Project Gutenberg “bookshelf” for science fiction


      and it includes Poul Anderson, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H. Beam Piper, to name a few. While some people may elect to exclude older books from what they choose to read, there are plenty of science fiction books available. I’m afraid that you’ve already inspired me to write a long comment (and thank you for that) 🙂 , so I’ll save an explanation of why “ephemera” is more likely to be in the public domain for another time.

      In terms of contemporary science fiction, many authors who self-publish choose to make their books available for free, often through what is called a “creative commoons” license. I’m sure that would continue to be true.

      Second, you say that many people don’t want to spend $30 for a hardback, and I absolutely understand that. Many people don’t want to spend $50,000 for a car. However, does that mean that the government should buy people who can afford them $50,000 cars, rather than spending the money on public transit, which is how many working people who can’t afford cars get to work? Of course, a library doesn’t give you the book, just lets you borrow it, but I’d also rather see public money spent on buses and subways than on a Zip Car style borrowing system for expensive vehicles. It seems a more efficient and equitable use of the funds.

      This line:

      “I don’t know how you would decide who is wealthy enough to not be able to use the facility.”

      is brilliantly written. If you don’t make a living using words, it’s something you should consider. It states a fact in a way most calculated to win people to your point of view, and that’s a sign of both intelligence and empathy…two traits that don’t always go hand-in-hand (but do, for example, in good trainers).

      I would state the same fact differently: “How do we determine who is unable to afford books, and give them the access that other people have?” It would be in a manner similar to the way that we determine who needs help in getting access to food. I’ve mentioned in another comment that it might be a higher baseline than the one we set for food aid, but the process would not be that different. Let’s say that we have five licenses available for a popular book. There are fifty people in our potential borrowing group who make, oh, fifty thousand dollars a year or more. There are fifteen people in the group who make under twenty thousand dollars a year. Those numbers might mean different things in different communities, of course. The question is, should we make any more effort to let the people who can’t afford the book have the same opportunity to borrow it as the people who can? The poverty rate in the US is about fifteen percent, I think.

      When you use the emotionally charged term “censorship”, I’m going to assume that you mean that people would be prevented by the government from reading something that they could otherwise read. I’m very opposed to censorship, and I see what I’ve suggested as giving more access, not less…although in my case, it isn’t by the government. Right now, some publishers are not licensing e-books to public libraries at all, and others are making the availability limited (HarperCollins, for example, limits the number of times a book can be checked out before the library has to pay for another license). That means that someone who can’t afford the book also can not get it from the public library. With the possibilities I suggested, that same disadvantaged person would be able to get it from the public library. That makes the book more available to that population segment. Someone who could afford the book would have to make the choice whether or not to buy it. Arguably, that makes the book less available to those who can afford it, and as I suggested above, that’s a larger group. However, if the book is not available in the public library at all, it doesn’t hurt that larger group. If the publisher is convinced to make it available in the public library if the library is not in competition with it (by serving a group that would not otherwise have bought it), I think we would see those publishers who are now resistant to public library e-books change that position, especially if there were clear tax and/or public relations benefits.

      I agree with you about not wanting to get rid of public libraries, and what I’ve suggested would, I think, be more likely to preserve them. My suggestions would, I believe, make the publishers much stronger allies of the public library system.

      While I have heard of public libraries closing, I’m not aware of anyone who is proposing eliminating them on a wide scale: I certainly haven’t, and would be vigorously opposed to that. Is there some place you can direct me to online where you’ve seen a statement like that? While I have suggested that the role of public libraries might need to change, that’s a very different thing from eliminating them.

      That’s key for me in writing this. Leaving public libraries alone might actually be what leads to their eventual demise or great reduction as a public institution. The world is changing. E-book availability is very different from paperbook availability under the current laws, and as the world shifts more towards e-book use, that will make things more difficult for the public libraries.

      You might find this information from the American Library Association interesting:


      I want the most books to be available to the most people possible, and I think we agree on that. I think we just see different ways to accomplish it.

      I look forward to reading more comments from you in the future.

      • ccabek Says:

        Bufo, you obviously feel strongly about the fact that libraries will have to change or be lost. This might very well be true. I just don’t really like the solutions you have put forward to help save them.

        “Should public libraries circulate current, popular, in-copyright books to people who can otherwise afford them?”

        My answer would be: Absolutely! Why not? We all deserve to be able to read any book we desire. And if I am a cheapskate who really doesn’t want to have a house full of books, that is my choice. (Before the Kindle came around, I would buy books, then sell them back). I don’t have the room to store the books, nor will I read them again.

        “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.”

        So, the general population should only be allowed to read “out of copyright” books. Or, must at least pay to read them, in some manner.
        This is where I feel censorship can creep very easily into both our libraries, and into our schools, and stores, depending on what the big publishing companies decide. It will hurt more authors, and give the publishers even more control (which they don’t need).

        Yes, we both agree that we need libraries, but how to get them into the digital age, and make it “fair” to publishers? Let the Pubs. figure out how they are going to deal with technology. They knew this was coming, and did nothing. It just shows that the big fat cats of the large publishing houses will have to change their ways.
        And perhaps, just perhaps, there might be some problems that the public libraries will have to figure out also. I just don’t think it is your idea. Sorry.
        I still enjoy your blog, and read it each day.

        PS: I am not a writer, but thank you for the compliment. I only wish I was so lucky to have such a gift.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Miki!

        You don’t need to apologize for disagreeing…I think that’s fine. 🙂 In fact, it appears to put you in the vast majority, based on the comments. 😉

        Thank you for not letting this difference of opinion (and perception) close your mind to other things I may say in the future. I look forward to seeing comments from you again as well.

  10. Round up #140: The Book Boys of Mumbai, Collections on the Kindle Fire HD « I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] Fun and information about the Kindle and the world of e-books « What should the role of public libraries be? […]

  11. Linda Says:

    My first reaction was did he really write this? I actually got mad at you. How is a digital book different from paper books when borrowing? Just because some one can afford an ereader does not mean he can afford to read all the books. The borrowing concept is the same for both. “Prove” that they cannot afford to purchase the book before they can check it out. What? I’m still a big fan of yours. 🙂

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Linda!

      Looks like a lot of people were mad/disappointed in me on this one. That doesn’t happen very often, I think, but it did surprise me some.

      A digital book is different from a paperbook because of something called the First Sale doctrine, and the way the books are sold. When a library buys a paperbook, they can lend as much as they want…often until it is falling apart. With an e-book (and this goes for individuals, too), the book is licensed and subject to the terms of that license.

      Publishers sell paperbooks to libraries, partially because that is a long established practice. Some publishers are not licensing e-books to libraries, and others are putting restrictions on it.

      That’s part of the difference.

      Publishers also know the impact of libraries on p-book sales (they have decades of data), but they aren’t really sure what’s happening with e-books yet (the market only really took off five years ago). That’s making them nervous and cautious.

      Virtually no one can ever afford all the books. 🙂 The question for me is whether libraries should be spending their precious (and dwindling) resources to provide books for people who can afford them, or if they should be investing in the society by providing books to people who otherwise can not afford them.

      My intuition is that more people reading books is a good thing. It makes sense to me for the society to invest in making books more available. That includes, as I mentioned, getting disadvantaged people the tools necessary to read the books…so affording an EBR (E-Book Reader) becomes less of an issue.

      I don’t think libraries can continue on the current path without a lot of difficulty. I think that the book business in 2013 is different than it was in 1913 or 1983, for that matter.

      Here is a little bit more about how I could see it working…and I’m just suggesting one possibility. It could be that people choose to have their taxes raised or in other ways contribute so that libraries can license more books, and that government regulations are passed that force companies to license books to libraries.

      The average person is able to use a library card to get public domain books. Those books are also available from many other sources (Amazon, Barnes & Noble) after they’ve been digitized, since the government can’t control their use. That person suddenly has access to hundreds of thousands of more free books than they did before.

      Someone who is below a certain income threshold is able to also borrow in-copyright books. They are identified in that way the same ways that they are identified for something like food stamps. That level might be considerably above the level for food stamps. That person might get the e-books from the library, or, and I think this is a real possibility, directly from the publisher. They can read those books at the library, or check out (or be given, perhaps) an EBR on which to read them.

      Ideally, in a fantasy world, I’d want every book to be available to everybody at no cost…and for authors and publishers to continue to make money. Since we aren’t in that fantasy world, I want books to be available to as many people as possible. I think that publishers would participate in programs that make their in-copyright books available to people who could not otherwise buy them. Right now, publishers donate books to non-profit organizations (like special care facilities), in part because they get a tax break (but also, in part, because I think they do want to contribute to the community). They don’t, however, set up tables on every street corner and let anybody take books who wants to do that. If you wrote to a major publisher and asked them to send you a hundred copies of paperbooks for free, they would want to know if you had a non-profit tax status. I don’t see this as that different.

      Yes, it would be a massive change, and yes, some people would lose something they had previously. I’m looking for the most good possible, and my suggestions are one path I can see to keeping public libraries going and making books, current books, available to people who otherwise couldn’t get them.

      Do I think this sort of thing could ever happen with paperbooks and libraries? It would probably require legislative changes (because of the First Sale doctrine), but I think publishers might want to see it. 🙂

      I appreciate you sticking with me, despite our differences on this. 🙂 I think some people may not, which again, surprises me. I am friends with some people where we have issues on which we fundamentally disagree…I think that’s a good thing.

      One thing to reassure my readers: I have no power to make anything like this happen, and it’s just speculation. 🙂 I would guess that somebody reading my post, and then reading the comments, would gauge the opposition to the idea of needs-tested libraries, and that might make it less likely to happen.

  12. Marge Holz Says:

    I have just become aware on the Overdrive app will not download to the new Kindle Fires. Can put holds on future rentals though.
    To d/l you must go to your desk model computer and specifically for Penguin controlled books you cannot rely on whispernet or wifi. You must hook up by wire for Kindle books only from your public library. Thought you would want to know this. Sure peeved me!

  13. Lady Galaxy Says:

    I think of libraries as the information keepers of the world. To me, one of the greatest tragedies of the world was the burning of the great library of Alexandria. The destruction of all that knowledge was a crime against all future generations everywhere.

    I think that libraries should promote and encourage literacy. People who can read, should read. People who can’t read should have a place that can help them read. Libraries and librarians promote books and reading in so many ways. They sponsor summer reading programs for children. They offer book clubs for adult readers. My local library has been giving lessons in how to download their e-book collections to Kindles and Nooks and iPads.

    I totally disagree with you that people who can afford to buy a book should be required to buy that book rather than borrow it for free from the public library. Retail stores often advertise “loss leaders” to draw customers into their stores knowing that even though they might lose a dents on that sale, the customer will most likely make more purchases while there. Those current titles of books, DVD’s, CD’s and magazines are often what draw people into the library. Without those current best sellers, a lot of folks might never enter a library at all. Then, once inside, they discover all the other things a library has to offer.

    If those who can afford to pay the taxes on which most libraries are maintained were told that they can’t borrow current books from that library because their income is too high, then they would most likely stop voting for the tax levies that keep the libraries open and stocked with those new books. Instead of being looked upon as the vaults of knowledge, I fear people would start to look upon libraries as charitable institutions and stop supporting them.

    It could also have a negative impact on the book publishers. When I think of my favorite authors, I realize that I discovered every single one of them while browsing the stacks of the local library. I saw one of their books on the shelf, it looked interesting, and I decided to take it home and read it. Library books are “risk free.” It’s easy to bring home a book from the library, decide you don’t like it, and take it back to exchange it for another. If I had seen the same books from unknown authors in an bookstore, I would have been far less likely to risk buying a book I may not like. I can’t tell you how many books I later ended up buying or how many of their later books I bought because I couldn’t wait out the waiting list from the public library.

    In small towns, the library is a social gathering place. The library should belong to everybody whether they can afford to buy the book or not. The day the library starts discriminating is the day I stop supporting it.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lady!

      I absolutely agree with you on the role of libraries as preservatories. That’s one of the three points I listed. While the burning of the library at Alexandria wasn’t quite how it is often pictured (there are several possible causes, including accident, and more than one library was in Alexandria), the symbol of the destruction of knowledge is a terrible thing. That happened with comic books in the 1950s, where there were mass burnings and destruction of them, because they were believed to contribute to juvenile delinquency.

      I also should have included promotion of literacy as one of the core functions. I’ve talked about it before, and have mentioned it in this discussion (but not in the original post). That would include basic instruction, but also things like “read alouds”…that’s been, in my opinion, a powerful function of public libraries. That goes both for children’s books, and readings by authors.

      Those reading programs are also fun and useful, and I would love to see them continue (even with the changes I’ve suggested).

      One place where I disagree with you and some others is how people perceive taxes. My guess is that people don’t knowingly pay taxes for the public library primarily because they think it will benefit them personally. I don’t think people would stop supporting public libraries because they couldn’t get certain books there. I could be wrong about that, but I just think that people tend to be more selfless than that. Yes, there are people who don’t have children who complain about paying taxes for public schools, but I think that’s a much smaller number than those who do voluntarily pay those taxes.

      People support (willingly and enthusiastically in many cases) many charitable institutions. It’s odd to me to think that defining an institution as such would mean that it would lose support from a broad swath of people.

      There is no discovery for publishers if their books are not in the library in the first place. That’s something that has happened with really major publishers and e-books. Overdrive has tried to convince them that is is good to have their books in the library catalog (and even better if the book isn’t available when someone wants to borrow it).

      Click to access PubWhitePaper.pdf

      In the case of e-books, they seem unconvinced.

      I think one issue there is that discovery is very different now. While in the old days, you might have only seen that paperbook on the library shelf (where they had many books), you can now see tens of millions of books available to you online. You don’t need to be in that physical building to discover that book.

      You can also get a free sample (from Amazon and Barnes & Noble), and publishers can certainly send out chapters and have free giveaway days if they want. That would have been impractical with p-books. I don’t know that they see the public library as the same source of discovery for e-books as it was for p-books.

      Libraries can still be gathering places. People can discuss Jane Eyre as easily as they can Fifty Shades of Grey. 🙂 Having book events would also attract people.

      Another key point is that people can do those sorts of functions outside of the public library, although not as easily with strangers. One hundred or more people can be on the same account and all read the same e-book for one download price. Social networks allow discussing of books with strangers, and arranging “meet ups” for that purpose. I do think libraries have a role in championing literacy and reading, but we have to look at resource use. That’s my big concern…what will be possible? The libraries could still be gathering places for everyone, it’s just that not everyone would be doing the same thing. I’ve seen that before: I’ve been in a library where adults weren’t allowed to be in the children’s section, without a child of their own.

      Finally, libraries already discriminate. Typically, they do it by geography. You either can’t check books out, or have to pay more for a card, if you don’t have an address in that jurisdiction. That’s not because they make sure you’ve paid taxes. They don’t ask to see your tax return, just something like a utility bill with your address. Why does it work that way? In my opinion, it’s because the library is for the good of the community…not just for the people who paid the taxes for it. That has always been a problem for homeless people, by the way…they may not be able to prove residency at the public library.

      I’ve never had another post of mine ignite such passionate responses, and I’m looking at it carefully. I think stimulating the discussion was a very good thing. If publishers say that licensing a book for a public library will cost many times more than it already does (and Random House has significantly raised licensing fees while not restricting availability), people may still decide that needs-testing is bad…and each individual will agree to pay, say, $200 more a year in taxes to keep it available without that. Having had this discussion will help people consider those options.

      I respect you very much, and I’m glad you respected me enough to post your comment.

      • Lady Galaxy Says:

        I would imagine that the way in which taxes support libraries vary widely across states. Where I live, the libraries are largely funded by local property tax levies on which people can vote yes or no. Schools are also funded in the same way. Of course, they get some support at the state level, but without local property taxes, my library would have closed a long time ago. In the town where I live, it’s very difficult to get school tax levies to pass, and almost impossible to get bond issues for new buildings. However, a few years back the same taxpayers that refused to pass a bond issue to build a new high school passed a bond issue to build a new library on the first ballot. When state funding was drastically reduced after the crash of 2008, none of the school levies passed, but the library levy did. Knowing my community as well as I do, I don’t think the library levies and bond issues would have passed if the library were perceived as denying borrowing privileges to those same people whose property taxes are buying the books!

        Do we stop at just best sellers? What about DVDs, CD’s and other media. Can you still browse current newspapers and magazines? Can you use the library computers when your own computer breaks down? Can you bring your Kindle or Laptop to use the free wi-fi? Will there be a sliding scale for using the copiers and printers? And who decides the cut off point for those who can borrow and those who can’t?

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Lady!

        Yes, I would guess it varies. I’ll obviously not challenge your own assessment of your community. If you think people wouldn’t support a library unless it benefited them personally, that’s certainly possible.

        I don’t think the libraries would be buying the licenses for the books in the needs-tested portion. I think that publishers would be encouraged to donate those licenses by tax incentives, just as they now donate paperbooks to non-profits. I know they don’t donate the licenses to libraries currently, but I do think that’s in part because of the competition aspect, which would be eliminated by needs testing.

        As to your paragraph about what would fall under such a program:

        * Bestseller status wouldn’t be a factor. It’s whether the book is under current copyright or not
        * This would not affect paperbooks, just e-books. The two are obtained by libraries very differently, due in part to different legal aspects
        * DVDs, CDs, and other physical media would likewise be unaffected. I suppose purely digital downloads could fall under this. I believe Amazon blocked their Brilliance audiobooks from libraries…oh, here’s my story on it: https://ilmk.wordpress.com/2012/01/26/amazon-blocks-new-audiobooks-from-public-libraries/ A system like this might restore access to them for people who couldn’t otherwise afford them
        * Browsing (and checking out) physical periodicals would be unaffected. I’m unaware of libraries allowing digital check-out of periodicals like that, but if they do, they could be affected
        * On the computers, this would have no impact on that. We are only talking about circulating in-copyright e-books
        * Whether you can use the wi-fi or not would be unaffected by this
        * The use of copiers would be unaffected by this. I could see a library waiving copying fees in some circumstances, but that would be a different discussion
        * I don’t know on that one. I would presume it would be a similar system to food stamps, although as I’ve indicated in other comments, I think it might be a much higher level of income that has access to borrowing the in-copyright materials. I would guess it might be done by a city council, a county board of supervisors, or by statute (which might be done by popular vote…I live in California, and we have lots of initiatives here)

        I can see that my original post may not have made it clear I was only talking about e-books. I do think we will increasingly see popular books that are only in e-book form, though, so this might affect higher numbers of books in the future.

        It would be interesting to see what would happen if voters were given three choices:

        1. The libraries close
        2. The libraries stay open, paperbooks can be borrowed by all, but e-books are needs-tested
        3. The libraries stay open, everything can be borrowed by everybody, and there is an additional $200 a year parcel tax to pay for it

        From what you’ve said, I suppose it’s possible people would vote for one or three before they would vote for two. I wonder if people would then want the library to be restricted to people who paid the parcel tax? I would think they would still want it open to everyone.

        Of course, three would not compel publishers to put their e-books in circulation, although they might do it with much higher licensing fees (as Random House did).

        Thanks for asking for further clarification! I think that helps.

      • Lady Galaxy Says:

        I was confused there when you started to indicate that you were only referring to licences for e-books, because your original question was: “Should public libraries circulate current, popular, in-copyright books to people who can otherwise afford them?” That is the question I and I believe many other of your readers were responding to.

        Your further clarification helps, but the issue behind whether income should decide who gets to borrow in copyright e-book material is still there. Once you make such a restriction, you’ve taken that first step down that proverbial slippery slope. Does the restriction stop there, or do we just keep sliding further and further down the hill? Once we restrict e-books, the next logical step is paper books. Then DVDs and CDs and all other services provided by public libraries. The logical end of that long slide comes when the whole library is for low income folks only, and then that we discover that a giant snowball has been sliding down that slope and eventually crashes through the roof of the public library system.

        I’ve also been thinking about your belief that the government should be in charge of digitizing all books. Somehow, I can’t see our current deeply divided government ever agreeing on such a plan. Would the same folks who want to put Big Bird on the unemployment line really fork over the money to make sure that ever book ever written is preserved in digital format? Think of all the high quality books that are currently banned from school libraries due to somebody’s belief that the book is offensive in one way or the other. There are people who want to ban the dictionary because it contains what they consider to be “dirty” words. As liberal as I consider myself to be, there are books I would not want to see my tax dollars go towards preserving because of their hate filled content. Let the hate groups pay to preserve their own hate filled tomes.

        Maybe Project Gutenburg is to the e-book library what Andrew Carnegie was to the free public library.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Lady!

        Good! We’re getting closer in understanding, if not agreement, and that’s still a good thing. 🙂

        I’ll go back and change that to say “Should public libraries circulate current, popular, in-copyright e-books to people who can otherwise afford them?” That might make clearer what I was trying to say.

        For there to be a slippery slope, you have to start out on the same mountain. 🙂 Legally, licenses and physical copies place those two in very different mountain ranges. It’s not impossible that publishers would try and enter into contractual agreements with public libraries about the use of their physical media, but it’s much more complicated legally. A publisher could make a library sign a contract that after twenty-six circulations, they have to throw out a copy of a book and buy another copy, similar to what HarperCollins has done with e-books. Given how contrary that would be to tradition, and the First Sale Doctrine defense libraries could mount, that would be very complicated.

        This is one where I just need to flat out counter your statement, which I rarely do. I do not have and have not had a belief that the government should be “in charge” of digitizing all books. I’m going to take “in charge” to mean that it is under their control. What I am suggesting is that the government should step up their already existing digitization efforts, but that in no way puts them in charge. Project Gutenberg, and other places that digitize,could merrily go along and do what they have been doing. As digitization becomes easier, more and more people will do that, making more and more books available. It’s something the government could do in parallel with the private sector. The government has a huge advantage, in having the copies in the Library of Congress that copyright holders were required to submit.

        We disagree about the preservation of all books, regardless of content. If there were infinite resources (which there aren’t), I would want the government to digitize and make available all public domain books, regardless of content. I’m a strong free speech advocate, especially for people with whose ideas I disagree. I’m happy when a group gets up and makes a public hate statement (not, of course, takes action on that statement), because it allows the public to see who they are. I’m much less comfortable with hate groups operating in the shadows, not being challenged by the mainstream.

        I know those infinite resources don’t exist, so things would be prioritized. I’m very sure that some of the ephemera I mention owning would be very low on that list. Let’s say somebody published…a My Mother the Car fanzine, and only ten copies ever circulated. Not likely that it would move to the front of the line. 😉

        I’ve hesitated a bit about editing the post, since so many intelligent and passionate responses have been made to it. Rather than editing that statement in situ, I may just add a small clarification at the bottom.

        I always look forward to hearing from you…thanks for taking the time!

    • Lady Galaxy Says:

      I don’t want to prolong the discussion, and we’ll probably never agree on digitizing all books. I think it might have to do with your need to finish every book you ever start and my unwillingness to plow through a book once I realize it’s not to my liking. That’s ok. What a boring world it would be if we all agreed on everything. Whatever would we talk about then?

      I disagree that the slippery slopes are on different mountains. I still maintain that once it is considered acceptable to limit use of any library materials to proof of low income, then all library materials will end up under consideration for limits whenever there’s a drop in revenue. As Lady Macbeth says in a public domain folio to which we would all have access in your public e-library, “What is done cannot be undone.” I can’t seem to find the originating source for, “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”

      I suppose I chose my words unwisely when I said used the terms “government in control” of digitizing e-books. Although for the most part, I think it would be a good use of public funds, I can’t imagine our current legislators ever agreeing to spend more money on e-books when they are trying to balance the current budget by cutting things that are vital for so many of us.

      This might be a great time for some of the giants of technology putting more resources into the digitizing of books, but I can also predict a backlash. If company A puts resources into saving books that group B wishes could be banned, then the boycotts begin.

      OK, that’s my last word. I give the final word to you.

  14. Rosemary Bodley Says:

    It’s hard to believe that a person as devoted to reading as you could be so unfamiliar with public libraries and their goals in serving the public. And a means test for library users? Glad to hear that you have been properly chastised by some of your readers. Stop in to your local library some day and just check out the activity and chat a bit with the professionals who work there.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Rosemary!

      One of the things I love most about reading is that it allows you to see things from another person’s perspective. I know that simply because someone has come to a different conclusion than I have, it doesn’t mean that they had access to less or imperfect information. Intelligent, well-intentioned people don’t always come up with the same ideas given the same data.

      I’m happy to have a great local public library…more than one in my area, actually. While I have gone to it most recently to donate rather than to take out, I love the feel of it. I think that contributes to some people who would rather see libraries die than change. I do think those are the two options, although I’m not saying that my suggestions are the only possible change. If publishers continue to restrict access and/or to raise licensing fees, it may be that libraries (as many already have) will close or restrict their hours.

      In my county, almost no library is open seven days a week. In one relatively disadvantaged city in my library county, the schedule looks like this:

      Mon: 2:30-6 Tue: 2:30-8 Wed: Closed Thu: 2:30-8 Fri: 2:30-6 Sat: Closed Sun: Closed

      My suggestions are meant to be ways that libraries can continue to serve the public, and to get access to as many books to as many people as possible. If someone can not afford a book from a publisher that does not license them to a public library, how can they get them? Yes, private individuals and organizations can step in to provide them, but I see getting books to people as a very good use of my tax money. That’s not just because I think it is ethically correct, but I also think it has a practical value. I believe that well-read people have more options when contributing to the society, and that means making books available to those for whom they would otherwise not be available a reasonable investment. Am I saying that way to try to convince politicians and voters who might otherwise not want to support libraries in the future? Absolutely. 🙂 I believe it’s true, but I want them to see the financial logic as well.

      I’m curious: if you’d care to continue to contribute to the conversation, why don’t you list a few goals with which you are suggesting I am unfamiliar? If there is something I haven’t considered, I’d love to hear it. I always like expanding my knowledge and perspective, and am always open to the possibility of changing my opinions. It would also be helpful for others to see those goals stated, so they can consider whether they should be and how they could be supported.

      Thanks again for taking the time to write on this important topic!

  15. Susan Says:

    One issue I haven’t seen addressed is from the side of one who would qualify for needs based services. There is a certain stigma attached to things like food stamps. People do look down on us. One thing about using the public library is no one needs to know if you are unemployed, unable to afford food or medical care without assistance. It is a place where you are indeed equal to anyone else there. It is a wonderful experience to be able to discuss books whether its the latest best seller or piece of great literature and not have someone be condescending or just plain surprised you’ve heard of Shakespeare or Tolstoy.
    I wonder if some would avoid the library if just needs based people were the only ones to check out books? Pride may play a part, but for some its about all they have left. I would not be one to do that because reading is like breathing for me, I would surely die without it.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Susan!

      I really appreciate you pointing out a different and important perspective! My Significant Other also pointed out the issue about stigma. However, I am only talking about e-books…I don’t expect the situation with paperbooks to change, due to differences in the laws. In the case of getting the e-books, no one would need to see that transaction. With Shakespeare and Tolstoy, they are public domain, and would be available in e-book form to everyone in the library.

      Might needing to apply for the access deter some people? Yes, it might. Some people don’t get food stamps for that reason. I think, though, that many would take advantage of it…and they would be able to get books which they can’t currently, since the publishers are withholding them or restricting them from public libraries.

      Thanks again! I think your comment was brave and insightful.

  16. Man in the Middle Says:

    This question is very well answered in a recently-free and currently 99 cent Kindle book; Looking Backward: 2012-2162 A View from a Future Libertarian Republic. It has a chapter specifically on libraries. Highly recommended. http://www.amazon.com/Looking-Backward-2012-2162-Libertarian-ebook/dp/B007ITA0C4/ref=sr_1_4?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1357826228&sr=1-4&keywords=looking+backward

  17. Obama’s plan for needs tested library books…where have I heard that before? ;) | I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] What should the role of public libraries be? […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: