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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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