libraries and the internet

For a while now, I’ve been looking forward to writing something about libraries in the age of high-speed, wireless Internet, ever since reading this editorial (“Liberal whingers are wrong — we should shut our libraries”) in the Telegraph. I’m sure you can imagine what held me back: namely, that supporting libraries should be about as controversial as supporting broccoli. Yet they are controversial in this agonizing period of budget cuts and demands for “smaller government.” The arguments that McTernan advances in his piece concern library closures in the UK, but similar arguments are popping up in the USA, usually in the form of a question that sounds well-meaning: “how can libraries regain their relevance”? Seth Godin raised the issue here, and others, including librarians such as Sharon Clapp, have taken his breezy post quite seriously (her post). The issue is not really just speculative, since discussions about “the future of our irrelevant libraries” have a way of affecting conversations here and now about funding for libraries. Here in California, that funding is getting cut, and then cut some more, with each successive fiscal year.

Many librarian bloggers have already written excellent, articulate posts on this issue; some of those are collected and linked here. For my part, as a graduate student completing a doctorate in English, I’m in a position to reflect on the library specifically as an institution that makes printed books available, and to challenge the idea that print books (together with the institutions built around them) are not relevant any more.

My dissertation, which will be finished this Spring, has been made possible by the Sacramento Public Library system. I have been obliged to work at a distance from my campus, and in order to do serious scholarly work, I need to consult dozens of critical studies for each of my chapters. Literary criticism is not easy to come by; only a fraction of the best work ever becomes available electronically, and nearly all of it is priced much higher than other books. Exorbitant prices remain the only way for academic presses to make a profit on volumes that are too specialized to appeal to the public-at-large; many of the buyers are, in fact, libraries. To put this in perspective, my chapter on James Joyce’s book Finnegans Wake alone required about 40 different print books, some of which were out of print. Purchasing these books would cost at least $1,600 and possibly more, and that’s just the raw materials for a couple months’ work. For the dissertation as a whole, the combined value of all works consulted totals — this is just a rough estimate — around $7,000. That is the required outlay for a project that I cannot ever reasonably expect to turn a profit, even if it is eventually published in some form.

Furthermore, this wonderful level of service is feasible because of the way the SPL has incorporated the Web. Many of the books I needed were not in the Sacramento stacks themselves; I obtained them through the inter-library loan service, which is completely automated and connects institutions across the whole region. I found, literally, every single title I searched for, and received my books in a matter of days. I renewed them online, as well. McTernan writes that “fewer than one in five adults in England go to the library more than once a month.” This is an immensely misleading statistic. I too can easily go a month without visiting the library twice, not because I don’t need it, but because I can interface with it from home.

At no point, while writing my chapters, am I ever offline; I need the Internet for searches within books, as well as for answers to simple factual questions. That said, online search results omit context for copyright reasons; I can usually find page numbers for a discussion that interests me, but in order to follow the author’s line of reasoning, I need access to the book itself.

To her credit, Clapp tries to point out the flaws in these services. Even the local inter-library loan system couldn’t help her husband find books on gunsmithing, and her well-read friend, who likes to read several books at once, had trouble finishing books by the time they were due.

It’s too bad about the gunsmithing books, I suppose; availability probably varies from one library system to the next. Really, that experience says little about the value of libraries, because you don’t need that many books on gunsmithing to get started, and their cost is dwarfed by the cost of raw materials. The library is most valuable at the moment when a reader gets serious enough to want to compare one book to another, and another, not as a brick-and-mortar databank. In that regard, to be sure, the Internet has changed things, freeing libraries to invest resources elsewhere.

As for the reader who multitasks, I’m very sympathetic, because I often have to return unread volumes myself. Nonetheless, as I try to keep up with new publications, I frequently have no way of determining which ones are good, and which are just over-hyped. Probably the most widely-read review of Haruki Murakami’s new book IQ84 is the top-ranked review on Amazon, which encourages readers “not to think too hard” about the novel! There are negative reviews there as well, but the only way to really know about the book is to borrow it. Even if I have to return it and then purchase a copy, that’s much better than trying to purchase anything that causes a stir. It can be hard to get popular titles, but that’s already changing through e-book lending; I’ve been able to read library copies of Jennifer Egan, Tea Obreht, and Stieg Larsson by taking out loans on my Kindle. Only public libraries can do this. Of the 107 Kindle books I own, I can personally lend exactly one of them. Of the books I can borrow from Amazon.com, only a handful are both intellectually serious and still under copyright.

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According to The New York Times, Christopher Hitchens’s final essay collection Arguably contains his thinking on “a ridiculously wide range of topics,” including “Afghanistan, Harry Potter, Thomas Jefferson, waterboarding, Henry VIII, Saul Bellow and the Ten Commandments.” You can get some of those essays as full text online, and you can read the whole collection via Kindle for $15. If, however, you intend to argue with Mr. Hitchens about Jefferson, or Henry VIII, or Saul Bellow, you are going to need to venture back into the old and dusty world of print, just as he did. Now that e-readers have made books like Arguably more convenient and accessible than ever, the public library is increasingly relevant, because informed conversations about these books require a lot of other books. Reading is, after all, not a matter of finishing a single volume, but a journey across every kind of media, from one author to the next, further into the digital archives of the present, and the printed editions of the past.

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