Ben’s Vigorous Defense Of Libraries

Since everything’s available on eReaders these days (or at least will be) why should I still go to the library?

This is a question a lot of people seem to be asking, especially since 30% of adult book sales this year were eBooks, up from 13% from the previous year. With acquisition budgets shrinking, it’s a question that is very much on the mind of library directors as well, especially those at the premiere New York Public Library. In his article for The New Republic, David A. Bell addresses what the future “bookless” library might look like, and the steps libraries need to take to remain relevant (You can read the full article here). There are many interesting issues to explore (more than we have space to cover here), but two questions worth some consideration are:

1) Why should libraries have public domain, pre-1923, books on their shelves (especially since I can get them for free on Amazon)?

2) What do libraries have to offer besides books (Hint: They wear glasses)?

To the first point I have to admit I’m a little unsentimental. Even if you don’t assume Bell’s point that eBooks will be something everyone can read in the next 30 years, I don’t think these are books that people are actually reading all that much outside of the classroom. I’m not saying that no good books were written before the modern age, but I am saying that some classics are better than others. After all some of these guys were paid by the word and it shows. If they’re not circulating, and it can help give the library valuable shelf space and money for things that will, then I think it’s okay to assume that people will read Dickens in school. I know this can sound a little sacrilegious for a writer to say, but I think sometimes it’s better to acknowledge the truth than to hold onto some vague sensibility that these are sacred books that should always be available. A couple of months ago I sold a number of physical copies of the classics and replaced them with free copies for my eReader. Frankly, if anything, I increased my chances of someday reading them by the virtue of them always being available, and in the meantime they’re not taking up shelf space.

The second point I think has a couple of answers. Let me start with a broader question. Since the internet is increasingly becoming a place where we can find out reliable information about everything, why does anyone write non-fiction books any more?

I sometimes think about this with my current project. While I’ve added some personal touches, a lot of the research and techniques I’m presenting are available in a few dozen sources. If someone really wanted to learn about this subject, and didn’t want to part with any money, they could spend the hours going through all of the other existing sources, training themselves much as I have. (This is not to say that you shouldn’t buy my book. After all internet browsing is so much work 🙂 ). The problem is, sometimes there are too many sources, to many places that may or may not have the answer. If you’re trying to get a simple straightforward answer, the world of the internet or even the myriad of books on the subject can seem a little daunting and frustrating.

This is where libraries, and good authors, come in. They curate knowledge, selecting from the hundreds of potential sources, and narrowing it down to the ten or so that have the best scholarship, that cover the broadest spectrum, and that will actually help answer questions. Just as I’m working to give straightfoward non-nonsense information in my book, libraries can often clear away some of the clutter and get to what you’re looking for faster than you might think. And librarians have a special knowledge for parsing this information, for wrangling the random data down to an answer to just about any question you can ask. Sure we have to become pretty saavy searchers ourselves in this Google age, but *shocker* Google doesn’t always do a good job of answering the question we actually have.

This is all leaving aside how libraries are a good place to read, write, study and gather in community. Even those libraries that have given far too much focus to computers (like my old library which is more like an internet cafe these days), still are places where you can ask good questions and get good answers. I don’t think a completely “bookless” library is a good idea, but I do think it’s important to be flexible on format, and to think about what really matters.

How do you feel about libraries?


Filed under Trube On Tech

4 responses to “Ben’s Vigorous Defense Of Libraries

  1. Max

    Very interesting, hadn’t thought about the repercussions of ebooks on libraries – and, even though you only briefly touched on it, you got me thinking about the future of non-fiction in the age of the internet. Hmmm…

  2. Theresa

    Librarians would say they don’t curate information, not in the way most people understand it. All we do is make it accessible to the greatest amount of people in the shortest amount of time. Other than that, our expertise focuses on being able to use tools that provide better information than Google, since you have to wrangle it to get less than 10,000 hits.

    As far as eBooks go, libraries should keep print copies because the formatting issues and DRM are by no means settled, and, in many cases, restrictive. There are also things about particular copies of those public domain books that might influence their value that are not based on the author’s content but rather the reader’s. Consider ephemera as an example.

  3. I love my local library.


    I go there at least once every couple of weeks — sometimes more often. While they are certainly at the mercy of government cutting back spending on things like public libraries, they’ve also instigated a number of initiatives to make themselves more appealing to a wider area of the community. (And, of course, me. Which is the most important thing. Obviously.)

    I was going to explain why…. but my answer was so long it was ridiculous. So I’ll just write my answer as a post on my blog over the next few days. 🙂

  4. Pingback: A Little Library Love | The Happy Logophile

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