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Scilken’s Law and the Future of Libraries

Beautiful books, New Orleans city archives

Beautiful books, New Orleans city archives

Last week I briefly stuck my finger into a discussion about the future of libraries initially launched by Jason Perlow of ZDNet. Then I got busy with work and personal writing deadlines and pulled my finger back out.

However, half of what I would have said was summed rather tidily in an anonymous comment on Jason’s follow-up mea-culpa, libraries-are-wonderful post (featuring a 50-minute [!] video about the Darien Library). Snark Snark wrote:

Why are all the Eggheads missing the point here? The discussion shouldn’t be about trying to justify intellectually the role of Librarians and Libraries as an overall concept. We get it–they both rule (and are wild continued successes in many places). Instead we should remember that title. Physical books will go away eventually because they won’t be economically viable to print in smaller numbers. Economically disadvantaged communities, without the “cushion” of advanced libraries with Internet Kiosks, public meeting spaces and other rich-folk goodies will be faced with less books, and eventually a realization that they’re maintaining an increasingly empty building. It may take a long time, but it will happen. And those “poor” libraries will close, while the “rich” ones thrive and diversify.

Yes, and physical books will go away because fair use is an inconvenient obstacle to maximizing publishing revenue (which makes publishers wealthier, but will not improve the lot of writers). The electronic format of ebooks represents the ultimate bonanza for publishers: the ability to insert a tollbooth in front of every reading transaction. Technology is now catching up to this dream, and this is the decade of the second big shift (the first happened with journals and was really over by the fin de siecle).

Jason, in his original post, before he was fed the Library Kool-Aid, came very close to echoing Scilken’s Law (authored by Marvin Scilken, a library leader who among other gifts to the profession almost single-handedly pushed forward an investigation of publisher price-fixing): “If the service in question was the only service offered, could the library get local tax dollars to do it?”  The answer for everything except book-lending is “not likely.”

The public library is built around the book-lending model, and only luxury-home communities such as Darien will want to justify public libraries on the scale we knew them in the 20th century, as a kind of trompe l’oeil to underscore their cultural creds. The other communities? They will fund police, fire, and the town square. Those humongous edifices filled largely with paper-based anachronisms may not be torn down anytime soon (though I’m sure ebook providers lick their chops over the idea of monopolistic control of consumption), but the service providers–we library workers–will be reduced to skeleton crews.

This is not to say that the other things public libraries do are unimportant. We who believe in libraries believe wholeheartedly in these services, and we’re on the right side of that argument. But, as Marvin was pointing out, the middle-class public’s love for reading and books has helped us provide the other services; we squeeze them in and around our popular role, book-lending.

(Reading that interview today almost chills me; I wrote back then, “even I—a militant Cyber-booster—can’t see a community funding an Internet-only public library.”)

I haven’t said much about Andy Woodworth’s responses to Jason’s original post. The barycenter of his argument is that “libraries will not close so long as there is a digital divide,” but he begins his post by acknowledging that public libraries now face dire funding cuts, and concludes his article by pointing to  the Posh Spice of public libraries, an outlier that will likely be the Last Public Library Standing.

(The other response to Jason’s post, which posits the future of libraries in a kind of vague partnership with other equally-threatened services,  begins with an effusive account of a library run by a PhD for a “ridiculously small salary.” In other words, we just love, love our libraries as long as we don’t have to actually pay for them.)

My response to Andy is that no matter what we wish for, a public service that no longer serves the needs of the middle class, once reduced or eliminated, will rarely return. The public’s mood these days suits the DRM model perfectly: a book for me, but none for thee. They aren’t going to go to bat for either fair use or public libraries, and that leaves the advocacy for both pretty much to us.

So the other reason fair use will go away is because we let that happen. In less than a decade we can allow malaise and failure to take action to undo an honorable practice that began at the dawn of the written word. We will be the lesser for it.

I know there has been discussion about stopping the train in its tracks. I don’t know if that’s possible at this point, but I do know that we need intelligent, hard-hitting leadership to at least fight the good fight, and if I were not running a tiny university library with 4 library workers and a handful of students (and if I hadn’t set my cap on leading this library toward several significant renovations), I’d run for ALA President on this platform and make it the sole focus of my presidency.

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  1. I’d rejoin ALA just to vote for you. Agree with your analysis entirely.

    It should be stated more often that libraries have not been legally allowed to lend out ebooks like they do print books (where they don’t need the publishers permission to lend) — if libraries die because of ebooks, it’s in part because publishers collectively quite intentionally illegalized libraries.

    Saturday, November 20, 2010 at 6:18 pm | Permalink
  2. Well said, Karen.

    My pointing to Darien Library is as a way forward for libraries. Yes, I know, they have a huge financial advantage in being an affluent community. However, I don’t think that is any different than pointing to designers of high fashion and noting the influence they have on designers down the line who make the clothing we buy everyday. In pointing to Darien, to me it presents a plan and a hope to those who are willing to pursue it. Yes, they might not have the same advantages as Darien, but I see it as a roadmap. As a roadmap, it tells you how to get to point A to point B; how you get there is another question entirely.

    Will the public come around on DRM? I’d like to hope so. There’s a difference between the early adopters and people with disposable income embracing the devices; they have the means to do so. For them, not being able to control or lend books is the price of admission to having the latest and greatest. When it comes to those without disposable income, will they accept the non-transferable offer or opt out? There’s the real question.

    What this would really take is a shift in people’s attitudes about electronic property. (Examples: I don’t own any of my character’s equipment on World of Warcraft, I lease the rights to play the game. I don’t own anything I buy on Farmville; I’m just paying for the right to use something, have something, or add something to my farm in the game.) So far, the illusion of ownership is enough to keep people happy. In a year from now, who knows?

    I don’t think librarians are alone on taking on DRM and fair use issues but our allies are limited. I have to think on the middle class statement you made; is there something I should be reading in regards to that?

    If you had that platform, I’d join ALA just to vote for you.

    Saturday, November 20, 2010 at 6:56 pm | Permalink
  3. This is a side note from the primary conversation here, but since both the previous commenters implied they were non-members of ALA then they’d might appreciate today’s post from Rory Litwin on “Why should I Renew my ALA Membership?”

    Saturday, November 20, 2010 at 11:42 pm | Permalink
  4. Just a note to say that, yes, Darien is a wealthy community, but it is not clear that the town spends more per capita (or as a greater portion of the town revenue) on libraries than other towns. Are they doing anything that other towns couldn’t do? Until I see some real comparative numbers, I’ll withhold judgement. As for the rest of the future of libraries issue: have at it!

    Sunday, November 21, 2010 at 12:37 pm | Permalink
  5. According to this article: $155 per capita from the government, plus significant additional funds from the Friends. Even at that, a budget report from January of this year indicates that Darien has reduced staff and shrunk its fiscal footprint.

    Also, I am sure this is pulled down by the many small PLs that get by with cheap labor and minimal hours, but the highest per-state average per capita PL funding is $74 (NY), handily placing Darien at twice that. The average in CT is $49.83 per capita, according to one informal source I Googled.

    Monday, November 22, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink
  6. David Fiander wrote:

    One left-wing Canadian commentator wrote a book back in the early ’90s entitled The Wealthy Banker’s Wife. It’s thesis that the best way to provide social services to the poor was to make the service universal.

    While this costs more, it ensure that if the government attempts to cut funding for a service, then the titular privileged woman will become upset and protest, which is much more visible than when poverty activists complain.

    In the library context, one of the implications of this is that funding cuts should be either applied uniformly across the system, or should be applied preferentially to the more affluent areas of the city.

    This is tangential to the issues surrounding the doctrine of first sale and DRM, but I think it’s a useful idea to keep in mind when strategizing.

    Monday, November 22, 2010 at 12:36 pm | Permalink
  7. Tim wrote:

    Exactly right on almost every point. Here’s on you’re wrong on.

    “They aren’t going to go to bat for either fair use or public libraries, and that leaves the advocacy for both pretty much to us.”

    I have to take issue with this. The people I hang out with the most–book lovers–are the most angry about licensing situation that will cut libraries out(1).

    Meanwhile, it seems to me that few librarians have thought seriously about the problem. Over and over, when I raise the basic problem, I get “it’s going to be just like today,” “Overdrive already allows that!” or “our library is going to start lending Kindles.” Worse, the most active and aware librarians I know are out there are actively promoting these deeply anti-library solutions, with the standard rhetoric about “the future” and “what patrons want.”

    So, I suggest some of the problem here lies in librarianship itself, and its aversion to aversion. “What your patrons want” (often imagined) isn’t good enough, if it kills the very institution that meets the need. I’d like to see a little less fawning over the wonderful ebook future and a little more fighting for our right–my right too–to truly own what we buy.

    1. It’s not DRM that’s the problem but licenses.

    Monday, November 22, 2010 at 5:15 pm | Permalink
  8. I accuse myself of unclear antecedents, but other than that I think we’re on the same page (so to speak). I also agree that I should have said licensing, not DRM.

    Monday, November 22, 2010 at 6:06 pm | Permalink
  9. I’m assuming where you write “fair use” you mean “first sale”? (That’s what gives us the right to give away, resell, or lend out the books we buy.) Book-lending as it exists now in the US depends crucially on the first-sale right, and the increasingly successful attempts to take it away in the book world do augur badly for public libraries.

    But there may also be a fair use angle that I’m missing; if so, I’d like to hear more about what you have in mind.

    Monday, November 22, 2010 at 6:38 pm | Permalink
  10. Tim wrote:

    The thing is, even if if there were a fair-use argument, it wouldn’t matter. The publisher/providers power isn’t vested primarily in copyright, but in licenses or contracts and, failing that, in the willingness of publishers/providers to sell the goods at all.

    Monday, November 22, 2010 at 8:12 pm | Permalink
  11. In reply to Tim
    “Meanwhile, it seems to me that few librarians have thought seriously about the problem. Over and over, when I raise the basic problem, I get “it’s going to be just like today,” “Overdrive already allows that!” or “our library is going to start lending Kindles.” Worse, the most active and aware librarians I know are out there are actively promoting these deeply anti-library solutions, with the standard rhetoric about “the future” and “what patrons want.””

    A lot of librarians WANT to take this idea seriously but I think the problem lies in the fact that a lot of librarians and admin don’t really know shit about eBooks. Admin’s role has changed from less about being the guardian of the library to more of a fundraiser/politician role. I see it everywhere. So admin is clueless about eBooks, etc and they turn to the “easiest” solution which is Overdrive and lending out Kindles. We both know these are not solutions, just mere band aids for a large gaping wound. How do the people that “get it” with eBooks educate the rest of the library world? How can we change staff perception about the changes that are happening

    I’m the type of librarian who is promoting those “deeply anti-library” solutions. I think a lot of people in my generation that are coming up as librarians either have A) come from an untraditional librarian background (like me) and B) Feel the need to change things but lack the direction. Once again, I look at admin. To get money to fund libraries, they want something that changes what the library is. They want to make it exciting for the people they are pursuing for money. eBooks and digital transactions aren’t sexy. Lending Kindles is sexy. Also, programming/video games/out of the ordinary stuff is sexy. Hence the shift away from anti-library solutions. I know I’m more of a gamer than a reader but I do feel a strong connection to the book based library. It’s a tried and true institution and if we get away 100% from what we were we’ll fail.
    So I know it sounds lame of me to lay blame on admin in public libraries but that’s the way I see it. We’re being directed towards this change because it is exciting and will bring money in. Many times I feel like a failure for not doing the “traditional” part of my job as well as I should be doing it, but in reality, admin doesn’t want that.

    Tuesday, November 23, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Permalink
  12. Anonymous Librarian wrote:

    As someone who is watching a county government destroy what was once one of the best library’s in the country it is hard to be optimistic about the future of libraries. The decision makers about our budgets, the wealthy, don’t use libraries and don’t even know what services we offer other than books.

    We serve a public who is willing to give up all personal freedoms to “keep them safe from terror.”

    We serve a public who will boycott TSA and their full body scans.

    But where is the public to support funding of public libraries?

    Tuesday, November 23, 2010 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  13. KSG, thanks for the corrctive about Darien. They’re rich! As for ebooks. I may have drunk the Kool Aid on this one. (We’re on that meme these days, aren’t we?) As far as identifying what users want, I’m not sure we’ve ever been very good at that, at least in academic libraries. But the notion that they want books and only books doesn’t jibe well with the fact that 30-60% of the collection sits, unread, on the shelf. That and the stats we have the show a pretty insatiable hunger for electronic access, suggests we should continue to investigate this area. Agreed, licensing changes many things for the worse. But insisting that the future must be just like the print-book-owning-and-lending past is not going to get us very far with library users or publishers and vendors. I don’t have a good solution, but I know that a “no ebooks” stance is not it. (All of that is more a riff on the impressions I get from the comments, not about any specific argument raised here.)

    Wednesday, November 24, 2010 at 11:53 pm | Permalink
  14. We often get bogged down in discussions of symptoms, rather than what causes the symptom.
    Authors find using and other ON-Demand-Publishing to publish a book or ebook, easier and much more rewarding than waiting years to get a work published by a publishing company. R.R. Bowker study this year indicates, some 750,000 plus books were self-published in limited quantities this past year (2009) while only around 288,000 traditional books were produced. And that doesn’t account for the 125 million bloggers who now can convert their blogs (serialized books) as books using several services now available online.
    So part, probably a good portion, of the problem with libraries will be the question of readership and how does one find and purchase the dwindling supply of printed books, which were once available to every library. Even small bookstores rail against the big box stores who basically control how many of a given title are published and distributed which makes it hard for those independent stores to get copies even to sell.
    Like the problem with classical music, it’s impossible to find any local store who will sell this genre of music, and the Wal-marts or are the only ones listing them online.
    We are not looking at the demise of the library first, we are looking at the demise of the availability of books in whatever format…creating the need to look forward to ebooks and their distribution/lending.
    The economics of publishing printed books has hit publishers hard. A small percentage sell 5000, and a smaller percentage of those make a profit.

    Sunday, November 28, 2010 at 9:43 pm | Permalink
  15. Marc Davis wrote:

    Acquisition on demand is a potent new model, I think, for both public and academic libraries — addressing a bit of what Steven Harris talks about in his comment. After an [library] set number of electronic accesses, the library acquires a physical copy or permanent ownership of the electronic item.

    Monday, November 29, 2010 at 11:36 am | Permalink
  16. Miranda N. wrote:

    This is not a conversation I’m typically involved with, so anything I might say may already be out there (I’m sure it is!). Forgive me if someone here has already mentioned it. After the reading this post, my first thought is that music lovers have already gone through this in some ways. Very few people buy CDs and instead download the digital file from programs such as iTunes. I hated that I was only able to play this song on a specific number of devices because after all, I bought it. Why should Apple be able to tell me how to listen to my music. And they eventually provided the DRM-free version of songs for 30 cents more. I’m free to burn a copy, play it on an unlimited number of devices, etc. I wonder what the actual impetus for this change was and if it would cross over to books? It gives me hope, in any case. But I’d suspect it was to win over consumers who refused to buy the restricted songs versus the CD format. I’m not suggesting patrons and libraries boycott ebooks entirely, but it’s something to think about.

    Monday, November 29, 2010 at 5:08 pm | Permalink
  17. Jeb wrote:

    Libraries are way too awesome to be dismissed so lightly. This author assumes that the fight is over already and we’ll all be reading e-books by any tom, dick or harry that feels like typing for an hour or so.

    A real book represents a commitment of time and energy that will always remain important. Book publishers will always publish books by people who invest quality in them. We will always go to the library and check out books once in a while, because sometimes we don’t want to sift through mountains of balogne like this article to learn something or to be entertained.

    Friday, December 3, 2010 at 7:03 pm | Permalink
  18. sharon wrote:

    Well said, K.

    I don’t think the Darien model will scale down. The fact that it is a wealthy community mitigates against the public library–most residents can afford to purchase what they need–what they are paying for is the personal service and the prestige of having a community cultural center. As long as having a library helps to hold up property values, there will be a public library.

    Here are the official stats for CT public libraries:

    Tuesday, December 7, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Permalink
  19. sharon wrote:

    Also wanted to say something about movies. A lot of people come through the doors just to get a stack of movies for the weekend or the holidays. When they discover, or can afford, video-on-demand from Amazon, Netflix, and others, public libraries are going to lose even more supporters.

    Tuesday, December 7, 2010 at 2:56 pm | Permalink
  20. Susan wrote:

    “…will be faced with LESS books, and eventually a realization …”

    Fewer, not less.

    Monday, December 13, 2010 at 9:26 am | Permalink

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