I’m a great lover of libraries, although I have to say I don’t use them very often. Years ago, I lived in Chicago, and worked directly across the street from the beautiful Harold Washington Library Center, the city’s main branch. I regularly went and picked up big piles of books. It was great.
By the time I’d moved to New York City, however, September 11 had happened and (I assume as a result of this) library drop boxes were basically unavailable, at least in my area. The city has a million library branches, but most aren’t open at time that make any kind of sense for a working person, so I got out of the habit, and years later I find myself in this terrible state, a virtual stranger to my local library.
A story in today’s Watertown Daily Times got me thinking about libraries, how we use them, and how we’ll be using them in the future. Massena Public Library officials have decided, the paper reports, that they’re not going to accede to a request from the North Country Library System for extra funding to purchase e-books. Although the system has money in its annual budget to buy e-books, it’s looking for extra funding to make an additional large purchase.
Massena’s library does have e-books and there’s certainly feeling that the database should be expanded at some point, but library director Elaine Dunne-Thayer says e-books just aren’t popular enough yet, with people who actually use the library now, to justify the expense. In fact, she says, only 34 people have downloaded the software required to read the system’s e-books. In the last month, only 72 e-books have been “checked out”; meanwhile, library users have checked out 3,528 adult titles and 2,727 for juveniles. And, not surprisingly, the library’s not exactly rolling in money (the town cut $78,000 from its budget this year) so it’s very much an either-or choice when it comes to e-books and paper books.
Now, I own an e-reader and when I bought it, I did anticipate being able to get e-books from the library. This for me has turned out not to be the case, and mostly for a reason that came up in the article as well: Downloading e-books is something that Amazon makes (really almost too) easy. But getting e-books from the library is a real pain — so much so that I can’t be bothered.
I’m someone who works on the internet every day. I can’t imagine, if I were a person who wasn’t wildly familiar or comfortable with new technologies, how quickly I’d be off there when the computer started asking me to download software. I can’t imagine why that’s necessary (although I’d guess that copyright and digital rights management are somehow involved). As libraries make their long term plans, it seems to me that they need to think about usability, and about whether e-books are a good way to go (some believe they’re the only way to go!) if they’re encumbered by technology that makes them too much of a pain for some users.
Massena’s decision also gets at another important question about libraries: Who are they for, exactly? In the article, library director Dunne-Thayer makes the clearly very sane argument that the library could buy books, that would “benefit hundreds of people”, or buy e-books, which would only benefit a few. Library board member Emily Hutchinson also points out that if people have the resources to spend money on an e-reader, they may have more resources to spend on reading might than a library patron who’s checking out a physical book.
Obviously distributing books isn’t the only service libraries provide, although it is central to what they do. They’re also community centers, and places where kids have stories read to them, and repositories of public information that we don’t keep other places. But this article raises questions about who libraries are for (people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford books, or everyone who loves to read?) and what libraries’ responsibilities are to their communities.