The top six library issues—from the Amazon threat to the need for a national digital library endowment

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fireHDkid I love my new Amazon Fire HD 6—as much as I did the earlier models—despite annoyances  from the company’s cash-register approach.

Librarians, beware. Solo, patrons like me are no menace to America’s public libraries. En masse, however, we could eventually kill off many libraries without even trying.

Like a growing number of others, I favor e-books over paper books. They are more convenient to carry. I can read them on cell phones, not just tablets or desktops. And I can tweak the font size so it’s larger for slow reading or smaller when I want to race through a book.

Far more of my books come from Amazon than from the digital collection of my understocked public library in Alexandria, Virginia (pop. about 150,000). And I belong to several commercial e-book-subscription services. I love the idea of my taxes supporting the Alexandria library, a community institution benefitting the poorest citizen. But in future years, how many booklovers like me will feel the same, even if most Americans for now portray themselves as pro-library?

Existential questions like the above top my list of the six biggest issues for public libraries. A query from Jim and Deborah Fallows inspired this exercise. She was writing for the Atlantic site on the good work at the public library in Columbus, Ohio. Note the Columbus system’s interest in good old-fashioned literacy efforts and school/library coordination, even while also reaching out into many new areas, as it should.

So what are the Six Big Issues for libraries, as I see them?

1. Whether public libraries will even exist half a century from now.

2. The urgent need for a national digital library endowment to help fund two separate but intertwined systems, one public and one academic.

3. America’s changing demographics. Can public libraries respond when both their hiring practices and book collections lag so badly in this respect?

4. Copyright threats and opportunities.

5. Threats to patron confidentiality from governments, marketers and others.

6. Censorship and onerous porn-filter requirements.

Ahead are some informal, highly opinionated musings shared on short notice, with a few pointers to more resources on certain library topics. Disagree with my issues list? Feel free to speak up. Just keep in mind that I am a long-time library booster who itches to be more of a regular patron than I am now.

I worry not only about the digital divide but also the reading divide, which the diminution of public libraries would widen, among many other harmful effects. Libraries should be about much more than just books—everything from story-telling hours and computer access to the reference desks so important to the poor, the old and the sick. But I remain baffled and saddened that many otherwise-astute librarians no longer regard books as the mainstay of their “brand.” Despite some recent upbeat news on young people’s reading habits, the average 15-19 year old spends just six minutes reading for fun in an average day—more or less missing out on the academic benefits of recreational reading.

Keen on doing what I can, I am helping a high-poverty rural county in California ask for $500,000 from the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge competition to use cell phone book clubs and other innovations to fight an adult functional illiteracy rate of 41 percent. And I’ll welcome your posting your constructive suggestions to our page on the Knight site, so that the evolving Tulare County application can be at its very best and other library projects can also benefit from your insights.

I have no delusions of a full solution based on the cell phone book club idea or any other (and, no, I am not suggesting that all reading happen on phones, or even with e-books). The future of U.S. libraries is far, far less assured than many would say. But I also see hope. Tulare County, with a Hispanic majority, with almost three times Alexandria’s population and with half the library budget, spends a fifth of the money on books and spreads them around by way of such innovations as book vending machines. Easier-to-access digital titles could multiple the number of books conveniently available within Tulare’s 4,824 square miles. And Jeff Scott, the award-winning librarian in Tulare, is out to do all he can with a total budget of only $9.79 per capita.

Now—on to the top six issues for our public libraries in general.

Library issue #1: Will public libraries still exist 50 years from now

“Libraries make no sense in the future,” Mike Shatzkin, a prominent analyst in the publishing industry, said while speaking at a Montreal library built in the early 19th century. He later softened his remarks a bit, acknowledging the possibility of libraries surviving by changing their missions. But the sting remained.

Meanwhile Forbes contributor Tim Worstall has written an online commentary headlined Close the Libraries and Buy Everyone An Amazon Kindle Unlimited Subscription. No satire here, unfortunately. Like Shatkin he ultimately conceded that some functions of libraries could remain. Someday, though, qualifiers might not follow the the initial who-needs-libraries?

“Despite their relatively high use of libraries,” reports the Pew Research Internet Project, “younger Americans are among the least likely to say that libraries are important. Some 19% of those under 30 say their library’s closing would have a major impact on them and their family, compared with 32% of older adults, and 51% of younger Americans say it would have a major impact on their community, compared with 67% of those 30 and older.”

“Books”? Oh, yes, that means Amazon and friends. And I suspect that among the better-off young, the percentage of library supporters is still lower.

Could public libraries end up like many urban public schools—with advantaged families at first forsaking them for alternatives, then refusing to fund them well? Or at least not the book collections that the poor and members of minorities most need and value?

Alas, my hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, might in some ways foreshadow the future. Only about $360,000 of a library budget of some $7 million goes for books and other collection items despite the city’s large population of low-income people and immigrants who can barely speak English. That’s less than six percent, half the dismal 12 percent national average, and a far cry from 1942 when a quarter of all library spending in the U.S. was on materials.

Yes, most adults here are well-off. But not all. The majority of Alexandria’s public school students qualify for free or discounted school lunches, based on parents’ incomes. Guess which demographic group is perceived by local politicians as more likely to vote?

Ironically, a recent needs survey found that books were in fact the main draw of the Alexandria library system, even in a town that buys more reading material per capita from Amazon than does any other city. But the Pew findings on the millennials could be portentous. Just wait until younger people are the main ones filling in the ballots. Meanwhile library circulation is far less than it should be in a city like Alexandria—due in no small part, I suspect, to the tinier and tinier sums spent on books. Stint on your local library books, see less demand from the millennials and others, then use that as an excuse to reduce funding still more. And maybe even close the libraries in time, just as hundreds have died off in the U.K. Beautiful.

All of which leads to what should be Library Issue #2 here in the U.S. and various other countries…

Issue #2: The need for a well-funded national digital library endowment

National spending per capita on library books and other collection items is only about $4 per capita, according to numbers from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and in Alexandria it’s only around $2.50. Just where to get the money?

We need it. The library e-book scene here, for instance, endlessly vexes me. I’ve given up on just searching for Alexandria’s digital library books in categories I want. Instead, most of the time, I drill down in the library’s e-book menu to add a filter to limit my search to available books. While the paper collection suffers from underuse, the opposite is true with e-books. It’s hard to find an even remotely popular title for instant checkout. Granted, Alexandrians are ahead of most Americans in their appreciation of digital books. But believe me, many other cities will catch up as the price of the technology goes down and its capabilities go up—hence, one more justification a national digital endowment taking advantage of the inherent efficiencies of E.

For now, both digital and paper books are suffering at the Alexandria Library. At this point I don’t know whom to blame mainly. My confidence in my local library system did not rise last month  when City Library Director  Rose Dawson spoke up at a board meeting and actually seemed to be defending the low percentage of her budget going for library books and other content. Had top city officials leaned on her to take this stance? Or was it her own? Whatever the case, the talk from local politicians is of books vs. police salaries and the rest, and in this unfortunate competition, the people in blue are winning. And don’t count on cash-strapped state governments or on Washington, especially since Republican budget hawks may actually strengthen their hold on the House of Representatives somewhat next month and win the Senate. Possible GOP Presidential candidate Paul Ryan even wants to defund IMLS. Simply put, as I’ve written before, it is riskier not to start up a national digital library endowment, given all the uncertainties of the future. That’s especially true with the ongoing phase-out of the Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries initiative, which, although not huge source of library revenue, at least has helped keep libraries on philanthropists’ radars.

Who would contribute to the proposed endowment? I say, go after receptive and enlightened members of the super rich. An endowment would be good business for them—an image-enhancer as well as a way to help upgrade the quality of the workforce. A mere 400 Americans control wealth north of $2 trillion. Just a handful of billionaires could make a $10-$15 billion endowment possible in five years.  Further details appear in the Chronicle of Philanthropy and in the printed October 1 issue of Library Journal (expected to be on LJ’s Web site soon).

Along with my collaborator, Jim Duncan, executive director of the Colorado Library Consortium, I called in LJ for the endowment to help finance “separate but allied digital library systems—one for public library patrons, the other mainly for academia, even though everyone could access both.” Why two systems? Because it would be disastrous to blur the missions and values of public and academic libraries, despite some major overlaps. Public libraries serve mass needs and wants, at least within bounds, and in some cities they even operate within departments with names like “Library and Recreation Services.” They help patrons with personal financial, health, vocational or other issues, and fuel the desire for self-improvement in general, and typically the emphasis is on the practical as well as the entertaining. By contrast, academic libraries most of all prioritize such matters as cultural and historical preservation along with the advancement, acquisition and transmission of knowledge (in many cases for its own sake).  You can find John Grisham novels and self-improvement books to an extent at academic libraries. But they are hardly the main show there, and should not be. Leave that to the publics.

The endowment’s purchase of OverDrive, the biggest provider of public library e-books, could help kickstart a national digital public system. And the Harvard-hatched Digital Public Library of America (more academic than public despite the name) could be the start of the public system. Both systems could be universally accessible here in the States and share not just many gigabytes of content, but also a robust infrastructure within which truly permanent links could go between the digital books of authors and publishers wanting such connections.

Issue #3: America’s changing demographics: Can libraries respond?

School Library Journal has delved into the diversity issue in the book and library worlds, as we head toward a time when nonHispanic whites will be a minority of the population.

Here is my own take, as published in April in the Baltimore Sun:

Last year U.S. publishers released an estimated 5,000 books for children and teens. Now, here's a quick quiz. How many were written or illustrated by African-Americans or were about black people or other non-whites? 400? 500? Guess again.

A mere 63 books were by black authors, and just 93 were about African-Americans — those are the documented statistics from the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the Department of Education at the University of Wisconsin. For Latinos, the numbers were even lower: 48 by and 57 about. Furthermore, the library world is hardly a paragon of diversity, not when only 563 African-American males and 522 Latino men were credentialed librarians in 2009-2010 out of 118,666 total.

Granted, the Wisconsin study might not have sufficiently counted self-published books and e-books from minorities. And let's also keep in mind minority-created content of all types on the web and elsewhere from companies such as Wattpad.

Still, supply is abysmally short of needs. Racial and ethnic minorities make up 35 percent of the U.S. population, and they are the majority of children born today. Remember, too, that the book center's statistics focus on racial groups. What about the fifth of U.S. children living in poverty, no trifle when you consider that economic disparities account even more for academic disparities than do racial ones? If you're a 10-year-old in search of titles about people like you, then you'll be far better off white and affluent.

Sharing the blame with publishers and editors for insufficient diversity are U.S. libraries, a natural market for books by and about minorities. Why aren't they working more closely with publishers to close the diversity gap in every way? Yes, the American Library Association's president elect is an African-American; so is Carla Hayden, CEO of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library. Of 118,666 credentialed librarians, however, just 6,160 were black and 3,661 were Latinos in 2009-2010, as tallied by the federal government and mentioned in an ALA diversity report. With even fewer minority males—to serve as role models in libraries—black and Latino boys suffer…

Issue #4: Copyright threats and opportunities

Many librarians and academics would elevate copyright to Issue #1. No denying its importance. But this is yet another illustration of the distinctions between public and academic libraries.

Patrons of public libraries tend to want the newest, freshest books, and while we sorely need such reforms as shorter copyright terms, this isn’t going to accommodate patrons wanting to be entertained with the latest best-sellers. For that, no replacement exists for cash—plenty of it. Large commercial publishers will accept nothing else, as illustrated by Random House’s 2012 price increases of up to 300 percent for library e-books. Small presses and the most popular self-published writers can fill void to a great extent. But for now there are limits. Copyright reform can go only so far in increasing the number of “hot” titles for patrons. What we really need is for libraries and book publishers to spend less time fighting each other over slices of the pie and more time working to increase its size.

That said, it isn’t as if public libraries should let down their guard on copyright matters or stop pushing for more library-friendly copyright laws. Had a recent Supreme Court decision gone the wrong way, it might ultimately have imperiled one of their reasons to exist—the ability to do whatever they reasonably wanted with already-bought books, which the first sale doctrine makes possible. Let me also recognize the many millions of dollars that grotesquely extended copyright terms have cost public libraries and schools by forcing them to pay for older works which they could otherwise use for free. Then there are issues such as Digital Rights Management and the related anti-circumvention provision in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which can interfere with archival activities of public and scholarly libraries alike.

In innumerable ways, copyright law and related matters can raise or lower the costs of stocking public libraries. They certainly have on the scholarly side, where publishers have been able to jack up the prices of scholarly journals considerably beyond inflation-justified increases. But even far-reaching copyright reforms would be no substitute for enough cash to pay content creators.

Here are some copyright resources for librarians and friends:

–The site of the U.S. copyright office, including an FAQ.

EIFL, which, although focused on the needs of  libraries in developing countries, raises many issues also relevant to U.S. libraries of all kinds, including the desirability of open access as a facilitator of research and education.

The American Bar Association links on intellectual property law.

The copyright page of the American Library Association.

No Shelf Required, a library blog that often explores legal issues. For a useful perspective on copyright and other library issues from nonlawyers and nonlibrarians, check out the library section of the TeleRead site (disclosure: I founded TeleRead and still contribute).

LibraryLaw.com, which can be useful even if not updated as often as I would like. Also see a related page on copyright and libraries.

Copyright and fair use commentary from Stanford University.

Kenneth Crews’s 2011 guide to copyright law for libraries, as well as an older book by Mary Minow and Tomas A. Lipinski.

Issue #5: Threats to patron confidentiality from governments, marketers, divorce lawyers and others

Trained to respect patron confidentiality, librarians have reacted with well-deserved abhorrence toward the Patriot Act and have protested lack of sufficient controls over NSA’s massive e-spy operations. Those privacy threats will most likely continue. How to balance national security needs with Constitutional rights? And will the federal government someday refuse to support digital libraries that lack ways of comprehensively monitoring their patrons’ access? Right now, some librarians have deliberately configured their computer systems so as not to track patron reading habits long term.

At the same time, let’s keep in mind that libraries can provide better customer service, such as Amazon-style recommendations of new titles based on earlier selections, if they do keep records on reading habits. One imperfect but still helpful solution would be to let patrons choose between tracking and no tracking. What’s more, we need to make it easy for patrons to buy books anonymously without leaving digital marks behind.

Meanwhile patrons are already tracked by OverDrive and its strategic partners at Amazon. This is one reason I favor a genuine public library system online. Yes, government agencies might push for monitoring legislation that made the Patriot Act seem harmless. But even existing laws can let them access information from private sources. At least with professional librarians involved, there will be push-back. What’s more, there is less chance of  information on individuals ending up in the databases of marketers, divorce lawyers and the like. Remember, the snoopy love to exchange lists. Recommended: Julia Angwin’s Dragnet Nation.

Issue #6: Censorship and onerous porn-filter requirements

Librarian generally but not always have been foes of censorship (a Pennsylvania library actually  burned works by Theodore Dreiser), and a good go-to page would be from the ALA, home to Banned Books Week. Check out a list of banned classics.

What’s ahead, as libraries digitize? I predict more censorship confrontations, and the issues may only become trickier when libraries point to public domain sites without the usual controls in place. They should do this. But in time they should also expect a backlash.

Then there is the issue of mandatory filtering. Right now the related laws cover school and library computers, and the requirements are so onerous that some have refused e-rate funds. Filters in the past have even interfered with women seeking information on breast cancer. At the same time, filtering can go only so far in “protecting” students. If we must have filtering, let it happen at the option of families, not law enforcement people and bureaucrats.

Please note that censorship and filtering are last-but-not-least issues on my Big Six list. I can understand the pain that many feel over the lack of availability of their favorite books due to controversies related to race, sexual orientation, religion or other areas of contention.

Details: The photo comes from an Amazon page pushing the $99 Fire HD 6. Also, please note that this is a “first edition” and will undergo further tweaking. Feedback on this commentary welcomed! If you prefer to e-mail, I’m at [email protected]. And again, don’t forget to drop by the Tulare County page on the Knight Foundation’s site and leave your suggestions regarding the grant proposal.

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