Don’t let public libraries fade away, Mike—especially the neighborhood branches: That would hurt your publisher clients, not just society in general

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imageimageMike Shatzkin, the New York-based publishing guru with the guts to write on the Web what his clients may only whisper, annoyed some public-library boosters with his prediction that publibs would more or less die in the next 15 or so years. I like Mike and want him to speak his mind even when we differ. We certainly do here.

I replied briefly, and librarian Gary Price at INFOdocket (right photo) also rebutted Mike and promised more. Meanwhile I’ve agreed with a vigilant and correct Midwestern librarian that publibs are about much more than books—an opinion already evident in my Chronicle of Higher Education essay calling for a well-stocked national digital library system serving a variety of needs. To enlighten himself on libraries, I hope Mike will read a recently published, er, book, which I’ll sum up at the end of this post.

imageWhile not dissing nonbook content and services, especially during National Library Week, let me focus here on books. I’ll remind Mike that book publishers would feel some long-term pain if we instantly razed those Carnegie libraries or turned columned libs into mere community centers or mini malls where the unwashed hordes could buy tie-dyed jeans and used HDTVs.

Mike, you’re right on target when you say the decline of traditional bookstores could make people less aware of books. But what will you substitute if the brick-and-mortar libraries go? You’ve talked about publishers selling directly to specialized markets through the Web, and maybe that could help move wares like baseball books, which you could promote on related sites. But would the experience match the feeling of strolling through a Barnes & Noble and seeing colorful dust-jackets in front of you and buying the books one way or another (whether the p-kind on the shelves or, ultimately, those from Amazon or another site)? Furthermore, as I know first-hand, novels are a tough sell even now. Markets can be far, far harder to identify than for nonfiction, especially in the case of literary fiction that does not fall within a genre or series. Web sites, even the author-and-fan-oriented variety, can do only so much.

But you know how e-books and p-books alike—yes, some of the latter will survive, via print on demand if nothing else—could reach prospective buyers? Libraries, both on and offline. Some library purists may object, but if library systems can’t carry all books, then why not offer certain titles at reduced cost to libraries with the understanding that lending periods will be shorter, to increase the chances of purchases or of rentals from commercial services or even from the publishers directly? We’ve both been pushing the basic idea, and especially after POD improves, the concept could apply to physical libraries as well as the electronic variety. Furthermore, while I want neighborhood branches kept alive, even if much or most of the shelf space may end up in time going for other purposes, I love Nate Hill’s vision of Library Outposts, which, as I see it, could even feature videos trailers promoting the very most enticing titles for their users. Talk about preserving mindshare!

imageThinking beyond physical libraries alone, Mike, let me remind you that “free” plays well on the Net, and libraries are experts at this model offline and can be the same online. Instead of publishers and librarians constantly warring with each other over copyright, I’d like to see the two groups team up to fight for money for a well-stocked national digital library system (with indirect cost-justification, just as William F. Buckley Jr. wanted when he endorsed my basic idea in the 1990s and just as my conservative, Obama-hating friend George Roper does now). We’re talking about fair compensation, Mike—about “free” access for the users, but greenbacks for publishers, who should worry less about influence over existing distribution channels and more about new revenue opportunities in the future.

Keep in mind that literacy is a core activity for libraries; and guess what can help the cause in many cases? None other than the favorite wares of the big publishers: bestsellers, including those that some public libraries push through One City One Book projects (for those interested—not everyone is). E can make it easier and cheaper to distribute titles to large numbers of people at once. Of course, some scholarly proponents of the Digital Library of America (concept note here) might protest that bestsellers tend to be junk, and in many and perhaps most cases they would be right.

As veteran literacy advocates will tell you, however, so many people graduate from dreck to better books, and, at least they’re reading, period. Dedicated, observant librarians can speed the transition in person with: “If you like this, you might try that.” And, online, what better purpose for Web links than from from the dreck to the good? Librarians just might be able to elevate the quality of bestsellers by focusing on the deserving (although that is tricky—given the subjective definition of “quality”). But whether or not a popular-level book is blessed by literary critics and librarians, and even if other titles may be more directly educational, readers can still come out ahead through encounters with new words and new ideas. That, in turn, can be useful in the workplace—far, far more than a curiosity-killing, Gradgrind-style approach.

Quite relevantly, a relationship exists between access to the right books and academic achievement, and even popular-level recreational reading can be of immense benefit. Educational Leadership, a journal from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, has published a paper by Kelly Gallagher, author of Readicide, who among other things observes: “The lack of recreational reading has dire consequences. Brain researcher Maryanne Wolf (2007) has discussed ‘word poverty,’ noting that ‘by kindergarten a gap of 32 million words [link added–D.R.] already separates some children in linguistically-impoverished homes from their more stimulated peers’…. If students are to have any chance to develop their vocabulary or build the background knowledge needed to become effective readers, they must develop recreational reading habits early in life. And reading habits are not built by handing students reading passages buried in test booklets.” May I add that the more a parent reads, the more likely a child will do the same, based on his or her role model? And that means parental access to popular books or whatever else it takes for the role to model.

As a veteran, prize-winning teacher, Gallagher writes: “I have never had a student receive a high SAT verbal score who was not a voracious reader. And I doubt that any student I run into on the Street 20 years from now will thank me for helping him or her recognize symbolism in The Scarlet Letter. In fact, I’d be happier if that student wanted to discuss the contemporary book he or she was carrying.”

There you go, Mike; here’s an expert at least indirectly justifying the continued existence of school and public libraries (including, I’d hope, in-person book clubs and many other nonvirtual activities to encourage the consumption of books and other content in all forms).

So stop kicking around public librarians who value what they are doing now, as opposed to having to ride into the sunset ahead of time, or slave away in some corporate library.

Instead use that nimble brain of yours to figure out ways that librarians and publishers could work together on mindshare for books and on lobbying to increase the size of the pie, rather than quarrel endlessly over how to divide it.

For me, your prediction isn’t horrifying just because it might come true if legislators and politicians let brick-and-mortar libraries die, while mistakenly thinking that the Digital “Public” Library of America or an equivalent could be a replacement. Just like the Harper26Collins mess, it also shows the sad state of library-publisher relations in certain cases. And I don’t blame just the publishers. For example, not one commercial publisher sits on the 14-member steering committee of the DPLA (more of an academic lib than a publib initiative right now), and, alas, many library boosters would say that’s the way it should be. No! We need not just a truce but an alliance between librarians and publishers on the national digital library issue.

Coming soon: Tom Peters’s thoughts on Saving Our Public Libraries: Why We Should. How We Can, by Janet Jai, who, although a “civilian” like me, caught up with dozens of public librarians for their own insights. Saving is not scholarly-formal and in fact is self published, but to me, a veteran publib booster, the book’s words tend to ring true. DPLA participants will be especially interested in the thoughts on funding issues and, above all, on the full range of publib activities that in my opinion might be imperiled if library skeptics can say: “Don’t worry—the DPLA’s on the case from afar.”

Psst! A list of what publibs do: Mike, the details are in the Jai book, and while I think that some activities will change or diminish in importance, many will or should be with us for a long time—everything from libraries’ role as friendly, peaceful places for schoolchildren doing homework (with librarians near by to help them track down elusive facts) to their usefulness as places of both information and sympathy for job-hunters or seniors with life-threatening medical conditions; yes, the best librarians take a genuine interest in those they’re helping. Hey, Mike, listen to your inner liberal Democrat (even if libraries should make sense to conservatives, too, given the opportunities for young people to study their way out of poverty, thus reducing the welfare rolls). Many library users accessing databases themselves cannot even begin to understand what they need, and for the trickiest and most crucial info-quests, help in person can often be far better than the remote variety.

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