Afternoon read: What’s the library for?

Rare books. Photo: Amelia Schmidt CC some rights reserved

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.


24 Comments on “Afternoon read: What’s the library for?”

  1. jill vaughan says:

    My kids would not be the people they are today without our library. I see a book I want, and interlibrary loan it. When my children were young, I would bring tote bags of books home to my kids- we have no tv, and between dairy farming and homework they would consume them. I dragged books to the families I did family literacy with. I can’t imagine life without a resource for an amazing book I hear about that I can’t afford. It is wealth beyond measure, brain food, and pain-free education. They make the unavailable accessible. And now, when I read a book that mentions a painting or a concept I don’t know, I google it instantly, and I am grateful for the tools I have in my insular, provincial world. Amazing provision!

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  2. It’s a chicken and egg thing. I just got an e-reader myself last month. I’ve only checked out one e-book from the library (as opposed to about a half dozen I’ve downloaded from Amazon) simply because a lot of the books I’ve searched for simply aren’t available in e-format.

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  3. Mervel says:

    For me like Jill I have spent countless hours in the library with our children.

    But then the question is what about now that my kids are older? Well I go and read the newspapers and then I look at the maps, I check some of the resources stuff, but frankly I don’t check out fiction which I read electronically now.

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  4. Mervel says:

    I still like them though, like being there.

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  5. CJ says:

    I’m a regular patron of the Massena Library and I’m one of the 34 in Massena that downloads ebooks. Several years ago, my wife and daughters gave me an e-reader. I didn’t use it for almost 2 years but finally after much prodding did start to download ebooks from the library. Yes the software is cumbersome and the selection is lean… also the period is short so long tomes like Justin Cronin’s The Passage are tough to get through in the alloted time. (You can’t keep it longer and pay a fine like with a real book) What I do like about the reader is that I can make the print large so I can read on the treadmill. I do still like real books better though.

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  6. The Original Larry says:

    Libraries will go the same way as the Post Office if they don’t wise up. Everything electronic (e books, internet access, etc.) is harder at the library. How come?

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  7. Anita says:

    My 86 year old mom just got an e-reader because she suffered a loss of some of her vision last year, and has just about read her way through the large print offerings at the library. She loves the fact that every book can be a large print book. Her biggest hope for the e-reader is that she can use it to take out library books. She is also technophobic, however, and I think that mastering the software she’ll need to use to download library books may turn out to be very difficult for her. Fortunately there are a lot of free and inexpensive e-books available, and I hope she learns how to find them and download them.

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  8. Peter Hahn says:

    The elderly are exactly the people who should get the e-readers connected to the library collection. That way they dont have to worry about having someone take them to the library etc. The fact that you can control the print size is a huge selling point. They may have to ask their grandchildren to set it up for them.

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  9. Larry, it’s because most e-readers are Nooks and Kindles and B&N and Amazon aren’t interested in making it easier for people to avoid purchasing their product.

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  10. The Original Larry says:

    No Brian, it’s because many librarians are more interested in maintaining control over their little domains than they are in giving people access to electronic media. I can go into any coffee shop and be on the Internet before I get my coffee, but at the public library I have to go through sign-up, passwords, etc. I have borrowed e books from libraries and it is a torturous, drawn out process that usually ends up with the desired book being unavailable. It amazes me that a hard copy book is easier to borrow from the library than an e book. Unless that changes, traditional libraries are doomed.

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  11. Pete Klein says:

    Although I do believe ebooks are the future, I don’t believe ebooks will be the future for libraries.
    Libraries are being charged too much for ebooks and the selections being offered are too limited.
    This is sad because the cost of an ebook is whatever the publisher and/or author say it is.
    With print, depending upon the size of the run and the number of pages in the book, there is an actual fixed cost. With an ebook, there is no real cost except for what the publisher and or author say it is. Size doesn’t matter. 100, 500, and thousand pages is all the same when it comes to an ebook.

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  12. TomL says:

    Pete is correct. I believe all North Country libraries except Massena are part of an e-book cooperative. I know that Canton Free Library is finding usership of e-books is going up exponentially. We had one parton downloading books while working in South Africa! You can do it from home, or anywhere. Canton Free Library is doing monthly workshops to help people learn how to download books.

    The cost IS very high though, and publishers are limiting what is available. Another upcoming headache is that magazines are going digital – certainly can be a great thing, but it is not clear how to ‘circulate’ magazines digitally. It will happen. In 10 years, almost all magazines will be exclusively digital (or maybe paper for costly premium). In 20 years, almost all newspapers will be too.

    I have no idea where Original Larry has had his bad library experiences. Canton’s library has computer terminals in constant use, and free wifi. People park outside after the library is closed to use the wifi. I have never found it to be inconvenient or confusing to use the wifi at the library.

    I don’t know about other communities, but in Canton, Morley, and Rensselaer Falls the libraries are the center of the community. Libraries will evolve and become much more technological, but the will continue to be the hearts of their communities in the 21st century. That, to me, is an encouraging thing.

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  13. The Original Larry says:

    Kudos to the Canton Free Library! I wish I could say the same about my community and some others I have lived in.

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  14. mervel says:

    There will always be a need for the physical book. Physical books last longer than ebooks or any e-device. We don’t know how long these things last, we have at most a 40 year history, and the results don’t look that great. Books can last 500 years, we have books older than that. Maybe libraries will fulfill the role of the monastery in protecting these books for future generations.

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  15. mervel says:

    Also E-books run on coal or some other carbon based fuel, printed books don’t need fuel to run.

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  16. Walker says:

    Mervel, an e-book can last forever, in the sense that if a copy is made of the medium it is recorded on is made well before the original decays, it will be an exact duplicate of the original, with a brand new shelf life. So it requires an active process to assure preservation. And there’s every possibility that a disk kept in good conditions could last for hundreds of years– we simply don’t know. Meanwhile, libraries everywhere are destroying tons of paper books as interest in particular volumes wanes– it is our interest, rather than the physical medium, that may prove to be short-lived.

    I’m no fan of e-books. I have never read one. I was given a Kindle, and promptly got rid of it. And I love books, and have way too many, and never enough shelf space. But over time, the e-book is definitely going to replace paper for most titles ever printed; Google has already digitized more than 20 million books, while Brewster Kahle, creator of the Internet Archive (Wayback Machine) who is trying to acquire physical copies of every book ever printed has managed to shelve only half a million.

    It’s really not a matter of the longevity of the medium, it’s about space. Google estimates that about 130 million books have been printed. The largest library in the world, the Library of Congress, has fewer than 23 million.

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  17. Mervel says:

    Walker you are assuming we will always have an uninterrupted energy flow. What if that is disrupted for 40 or 50 years through war or disruption? We don’t know how long these things will last, we know the mediums don’t last very long and yes we can move things from medium to medium as they decay, but will that always happen? A lot of assumptions about the future have to be made for that to happen, I don’t have to make any of those assumption about storing a printed book. But this or course is not nearly reason enough to keep libraries! I just thought it was one minor function.

    Another however is that it is a true community space plus, you can look at out sized printed materials, with e-readers I can’t look at a giant map or a globe or things of that nature. I do see the role of the library changing though.

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  18. Mervel says:

    Does experience matter? I think our senses do matter, the experience of a library matters, smells, feel, quite etc.

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  19. Walker says:

    “Walker you are assuming we will always have an uninterrupted energy flow.”

    If we lose electricity, all bets are off. In that case my guess is it would be interplanetary visitors who would be trying to decipher our cultures, in whatever form we recorded them– we would have bought the ranch, courtesy of an asteroid hit or the like.

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  20. Mervel says:

    I don’t think so Walker, a good portion of the globe currently does not have any electricity at all right now, to start with.

    But secondly we cannot predict the various events of the future, we could see major disruptions of our grid from natural forces. We could see massive cyber attacks which would eliminate data and could even destroy hardware, etc. Consider a full scale cyber-war, it could happen.

    Physical books could withstand all of that, electronically stored data would not, it would simply be gone. In addition what if future generations are idiots, what if we have a period of time when no one cared enough to transfer all of this data from one decaying platform to the next. Books could withstand that for many many generations, until once again a future generation would care about literature etc.

    So I think there will always be some value to the physical book for those reasons alone.

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  21. Walker says:

    “So I think there will always be some value to the physical book for those reasons alone.”

    All I can say is that “always” is a very long time. Time will tell.

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  22. Pete Klein says:

    If you lose electricity, you will also lose the ability to print books. If that were to happen, the print books would eventually decay.
    One other thing about ebooks. I’ve recently noticed more and more even noted authors are going the only ebook route.
    Big reasons for the ebook revolution are speed of delivery and lower cost.
    Amazon and B&N dominate.

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  23. mervel says:

    I agree Walker always is a long time, and time will tell. Of course right now we do have historical precedence for books lasting 100-800 years in relatively poor conditions (with extreme examples of even longer). So we have pretty good historical data on the longevity of the printed book, we have a 20 year history with electronic storage.

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  24. mervel says:

    Of course like I said this would not in and of itself be a reason for having a local library, it is a side issue.

    Is there value in having communal spaces? To me all of our current technology is pushing us toward being even more isolated from each other as we sit at home by ourselves accessing all of these books.

    I think the library also serves a community function.

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