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E-Books, Libraries, Democracy, Groucho

E-books have presented something of a challenge for libraries. Not because libraries are opposed to e-books, but because many of the largest publishers (collectively called the “Big Six”) have been opposed to making E-books available to libraries.

Indeed, in September of 2012, Maureen Sullivan (president of the American Library Association [ALA]) issued “An Open Letter to America’s Publishers” in which she wrote:

“Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin have been denying access to their ebooks for our nation’s 112,000 libraries and roughly 169 million public library users…if our libraries’ digital bookshelves mirrored the New York Times fiction bestseller list, we would be missing half of our collection any given week due to these publishers’ policies.”

However the resistance of publishers seems to have steadily broken down in the months since Sullivan wrote this open letter, and it is a result that is no doubt somewhat related to many libraries and librarians making this an issue. Such was on display in a New York Times op-ed published on May Day (of all days) by NYPL president Anthony W. Marx titled “E-books and Democracy” [don’t laugh at the title].

In the op-ed Anthony Marx praises the progress that the Big Six have made in opening up their e-book catalogs to libraries, there is still more work to be done, he explains, but there is progress nevertheless. As is the requirement for articles and op-eds published in serious and respectable publications like the New York Times Anthony Marx is forced to include the same dull canards about how libraries must wrestle with change in the digital age. The stance that Anthony Marx seems to lay out regarding e-books is a simple and logical one: more and more people are reading e-books, therefore it is good for libraries to be able to offer e-books to these people. Fair enough.

What makes Anthony Marx’s op-ed interesting, however, is not the nice things that he has to say about e-books, the Big Six publishers, or his amusing anecdote at the piece’s outset. Rather it is that amidst this talk of e-books Anthony Marx manages to present some much more important information than the fact that Hachette is now offering e-books. This is not just the statistics about how e-book usage at libraries increases massively wherever they are offered, and it isn’t when he notes that libraries make informational resources available that might otherwise be expensive. Rather, it is this point:

“The Great Recession triggered a nationwide surge in library usage. Total circulation at the New York Public Library’s 87 neighborhood branches — in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island — has risen 44 percent since 2008.“

This is a point that must be considered in line with the following point several lines down:

“At a time of painful austerity and rising inequality, we are raising money to rapidly expand English-language classes, computer training and after-school programs. Along with our counterparts in Brooklyn and Queens, we are supplementing school libraries by delivering print books directly to schools.“

Truthfully, this is information that can’t even be fully explained in the context of Anthony Marx’s op-ed, it is more helpful to look at comments made by him and the library presidents of BPL and QPL (more on that here). In recent testimony made to the city council to try and avert severe budget cuts (a session in which Anthony Marx took part), Tom Galante of QPL explained to the council that the NYC libraries:

“are currently funded at minus 18%, or over $57 million below our 2008 funding levels. Our ability to purchase new materials has been crippled…the library workforce in this city is down 19%…We have also slashed book budgets, leveraged private and grant dollars, sacrificed weekend hours, found efficiencies in back-end operations and stretched our staff thin in order to keep library service strong.”

To relate this back to Anthony Marx’s op-ed: library usage has risen “44 percent since 2008” even as (to quote Galante again) libraries are now funded “at minus 18%…below our 2008 funding levels.” In the shadow of such cuts and austerity news that more publishers will be allowing libraries to lend out e-books is a rather paltry reason for celebration. After all, it is not as if libraries need to start offering e-books immediately or nobody will visit the library anymore, usage has risen (and 44% is nothing to sneeze at).

While Anthony Marx’s op-ed indicates the ways in which e-books being offered will have an immediate and strong benefit for readers, there is one huge beneficiary group that is missing from the op-ed: the companies that make e-readers, tablet computers, and smartphones. The intention here is not to replace Anthony Marx with Groucho Marx (he who once sang “whatever it is…I’m against it!”), but to simply present a reminder that when a library offers an e-book it sets a stark technological requirement that divides patrons into those who can use that resource and those who cannot (though some libraries do lend out e-readers). It helps enforce an ever widening digital divide.

When a library purchases a book, that book requires no real additional tools to use it (with the exception being, maybe, a knowledge of how to read); however, when a library purchases an e-book it makes it so that this resource is only accessible to those who have already purchased a device that can access this file. No e-reader? No tablet? No smart phone? No personal computer? Well, in that case it doesn’t really matter for you that the library is investing in e-books.

Furthermore what also goes unsaid in ignoring from whence the e-reading devices come is what information about library users may be tracked by their e-reader/tablet/smart phone. Libraries have a commitment to protecting the privacy of their users: this is not a commitment shared (at least not in the same way) by Amazon or Google or Apple. And until the day that the libraries in the US have their own completely subsidized e-reader (which is not what I’m advocating) that can be lent out, it simply makes it so that libraries offering more e-books winds up mainly benefiting the companies that sell e-readers. Libraries choosing to invest more heavily in e-readers does little to truly broaden access, rather it divides library patrons into groups based on who has access to technology (granted, physical books divides patrons into groups based on who has easy access to the physical library).

Libraries were already offering e-books, they were going to offer more (indeed some of the main pressure on some of the Big Six may have come from the other publishers that were letting libraries lend out e-book causing a fear of being left behind for the publishers that remained resistant), and as the recent Pew study “Library Services in the Digital Age” (more on that here and even more on that here) makes clear, libraries offering more e-books is not a top priority for most library users.

Anthony Marx gives an ever so slight acknowledgment to those who would be slow to celebrate the availability of e-books, noting that:

“E-books might not seem like a priority given those daunting tasks [budget cuts] — but as the nature of reading changes, access to these books is essential for libraries to remain vital.”

It’s a fair point. It really is. But it would be a much fairer and stronger point if – on the op-ed page of the New York Times – Anthony Marx wrote (my changes are in italics):

Fully funding and increasing funding for libraries might not seem like a priority given the still present impacts of the recession and austerity – but as the nature of reading changes, and as economically squeezed citizens turn ever more to their libraries for important support, ensuring that libraries are fully funded is essential for libraries, communities and the country to remain vital.”

It is good that the Big Six publishers are moderating their stances in regards to libraries, but it is a shame that in a moment of such austerity and such relentless cuts to libraries that a library president with sufficient clout to get to pen an op-ed for the New York Times chooses to write about e-books.

Not to be a Groucho, but there are bigger problems.


About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul @libshipwreck

2 comments on “E-Books, Libraries, Democracy, Groucho

  1. Pingback: From the Desk of Phylis Johnson: E-Books, Libraries and Democracy – | Hey Sweetheart, Get Me Rewrite!

  2. Pingback: Hiding in the Pew[s] – technology, class, and libraries in the new Pew study | LibrarianShipwreck

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