Disrupting libraries.

/Disrupting libraries.

Many moons ago, my not-then-yet husband used to hang out on a Major Australian Computing Forum. It was mostly about PC hardware–RAM and case modding and that sort of thing–but also had a collection of general chit-chat forums. One of these was something along the lines of “Epic Legendary Threads of All Time”, and contained the posts the site’s mods had found so awesome or hilarious or fail-worthy that they were frozen in time, preserved and displayed like an amber-trapped insect.

One of these threads, called something like “Brilliant Business Idea!” contained a guy complaining that his girlfriend read too many books. The mounting cost of this had lead him to his scheme, which he described as being “like the video store, but for books”. For a small fee, he’d decided, customers of this wondrous emporium would be able to “rent” books for a defined period of time. Any book they wanted. To him, it seemed the perfect system. He couldn’t believe no one had ever thought of it before.

That was 2004, or thereabouts.

What a difference a decade makes.

What do you mean "free public service".

What do you mean “free public service”?

Because apparently everyone forgets, this is a public motherfucking library. It’s like “a video store for books”, with the added benefit of being free. Yes, that’s right. Free. See all those books there? If you are in the vicinity of the Civic Public Library you can go read them right now, for free. And if you’re not, then there’s very likely some sort of similar establishment closer to your location. And, in these magical wonderlands, the librarians–they’re what you call the shopkeepers in a library–won’t even yell at you for spending all day reading in their “store” like the clerks in the bookshop do. You can even take some of these books home with you. For free.

Let’s just emphasis that point again: FREE. No money. Walk in, grab a book, tell the librarian you’re taking it, and walk out. All the library asks is that you return said book within a reasonable timeframe. You can read every fucking book in the library if you want. For free. Because that’s what a library is. A free place to read and borrow books.

Have I made my point yet?

“So, like. I have kind of a dumb question? Because I haven’t been to a library for a while…”

The librarian smiles at me. She’s in maybe her forties, curly hair, shortish, and she reminds me something of a cross between Kameron Hurley and my agent.

“Of course,” she says as bright and as warm as the winter sun outside isn’t. Someone has a question! About the library! Of course she can help. Librarians can always help. They love books and libraries and making other people love books and libraries. Librarian, I’ve always thought, is one of those shitty, low-paying, underrated jobs done for the love, not the money. Like nursing. Or teaching.

Literacy, education, and health. Nothing import there, amirite?

I say:

“It’s just… do you guys have, like. Ebooks?”

“Ebooks,” the librarian repeats. Her voice sounds like the word is something she’s read in a brochure somewhere, rather than experienced first-hand. A badly-photocopied two-pager titled New Library Services for Clients, typeset in Comic Sans. “Yes,” she continues. “We have ebooks.”

“Cool,” I say. “So how does that, like. Work? Exactly?”

I feel like kind of a dick. I know the library has ebooks because I Googled it on my phone while I was standing between the shelves, just after taking the above photo. And also because there’s a clause about it in my book contract, which wouldn’t be there if the technology didn’t exist. Mostly, I’m here, in my lunch break, wasting the librarians’ time because I want to know how the library tells people about ebooks.

How the library tells people about ebooks turns out to be by fetching a second librarian. A young guy, whose accent and banter with his co-workers indicates he was from China, once upon a time. Now, he shows noobs like yours truly what technology the modern Australian public library system has to offer.

It’s called OverDrive. Young Librarian Guy walks me through downloading it on my phone and getting it set up. It’s a minor pain in the ass, turning into a two-step registration process that involves obtaining an Adobe ID–for the DRM–as well as remembering my library card number and PIN, which I don’t, and which Young Librarian Guy retrieves for me from the library computer. The whole process takes maybe fifteen to twenty minutes, during which lunchtime kicks in in earnest and traffic past the counter begins to pick up. A steady stream of people, borrowing books, asking about reserves, trying to find the driver’s licence office, or just stopping by to chat.

At one point, the first librarian comes over and tells me, “We have a class on ebooks tomorrow at 2pm. They’ll explain everything, would you like me to book you in?”

“I’m sorry, I can’t,” I say. “I have an office job.” Once more, I feel like a dick. I do actually kind of want to go to the library’s class on ebooks, mostly because I can’t actually conceptualise what it’ll be about or who’ll attend it. Retirees being walked through the same process I’m being walked through now? I have no idea, but I’m fascinated that the library has one.

Like I said, I haven’t been to the library in a long, long time.

Eventually, with help from Young Library Guy, I manage to get OverDrive installed and registered and use it to borrow a book; Cornelia Funke’s Inkspell. As far as ereaders go, OverDrive is pretty fucking terrible. Awkward to use, badly formatted, prone to crashing and losing my place.

But it works, more-or-less, and I have a book. An ebook. Borrowed for free from the local public library system, with a two week lease.

I thank the librarians who spent all the time helping me through the process, and walk out, borrowed book in digital pocket.

No money changes hands. This is a fucking library, after all.

In case you haven’t worked it out by now, this is a post about Amazon. Sort of. It’s also a post about Oyster and Scribd but, more importantly, it’s about every Silicon Valley/Wall Street asshole who’s ever said some variation on, “You know what we need? Netflix for ebooks!”

Well let me tell you something, dipshit. We already have “Netflix for ebooks”. We’ve had “Netflix for ebooks” for thousands of fucking years. Even if you only count public libraries in their modern incarnation–and you discount similar systems implemented by the Romans–you’re still looking at a good two centuries of public book lending. Even digital public libraries aren’t new; Project Gutenberg was founded in 1971 for godssakes.

The point of a public library is to make culture and knowledge available to the middle and working classes. That is literally the reason they were invented (rich people have always had access to books/scrolls/clay tablets/whatever). They are institutions of democracy in the most fundamental sense. Democracy that relies on not just the veneer of equality but–and this is the part people always forget–also an educated and engaged polity to enforce it. The fact that anyone in a modern Western country can even say something like “we need Netflix for ebooks” with a straight fucking face is a direct indicator of just how sick our society has become. The fact that most people aren’t even framing the subscription ebooks debate in the context of “public good versus private profits” shows just how disassociated we are from the notion that government provided public services are, like, yanno. A Thing. A thing that have been and still are a cornerstone of our entire modern way of life.

Democracy is built on the public good.

And that means it’s built on libraries.

This isn’t just about libraries, and it’s not just about Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited. But those things are a convenient shorthand for the rampant push to privatisation that’s been endemic in the West since circa the 1970s.

Even in that context, it’s still rare to find as blatant an asshole as Tim Worstall, whose recent Forbes article is literally titled “Close The Libraries And Buy Everyone An Amazon Kindle Unlimited Subscription“.

Worstall is the kind of asshole that grows like cancer amongst the modern elite. The kind who, either overtly or covertly, believes the only function of governments and of taxes is to fund welfare for the wealthy. Fuck the government investing in running services that provide for the broadest cross-section of society. Let’s just throw raw wads of taxpayer dollars at multi-billion dollar private businesses and pray that The Market will provide. Because, fuck. That’s worked so well in the healthcare and telecommunications sectors. Why not fucking libraries, too?

Let’s just unpack Worstall’s suggestion for a bit, shall we? Because Worstall is rich and white and privileged and, as someone who is also rich and white and privileged, I can state from the outset exactly why the maths in his article is wrong.

Basically, he assumes the only service provided by public libraries is the lending of books. Specifically, novels and other populist reading fodder. He probably thinks this because, like me–like the rest of the rich and white and privileged–borrowing novels is probably about the only fucking reason he’s ever actually used a library. If he’s very much like me, the last time he did this was probably somewhere back in his school and/or university days.

When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time in the library. Like, hours and hours pretty much every afternoon. Back then, to get from my school to my house, I had to catch two buses (i.e. public transport, another thing I suspect Worstall would love to see fall wholly into the unregulated hands of the private sector). This was a pain in the ass. Particularly because my mother’s office was located in the transfer. In other words, to get home from school, I could either, a) catch two buses, or b) catch one bus and hang around at mum’s work until she drove me home.

Mum was generally okay with option B, but it did mean I had to find some way to entertain myself for three or four hours in the evening.

Fortunately, mum worked about a block from the local public library. And so, from the ages of about thirteen to about seventeen, I’d go hide alone in amongst the books for hours, reading. Not necessarily borrowing anything (though I’d do that, too), just… hanging around.

Because this is one of the other services that libraries provide: a safe community space. The sort of safe space a pre-pubescent girl can hang around in, alone, after dark. Unworried and unafraid. It’s a place for students to study and community groups to meet. For people to spend quiet hours out of the heat or the cold, surrounded by dreams and by knowledge.

“Safe spaces” is not a service Amazon provides, as far as I know.

Not enough? Then how about Internet access; something that was coming in to public libraries just as I was growing past them. Because, as mentioned, I’m rich and white and privileged, and that means I’ve had a computer and an Internet connection continuously since circa 1995.1 Not everyone is so lucky.

This is 2014, not 1994, and because it’s 2014, access to the Internet is all-but essential to the function of modern living. For some people–particularly those most disadvantaged in society, like the poor and the vulnerable young–where else are they going to be able to get access but a library?

Which, actually yeah. Let’s just look at that for a second. Because libraries provide a bunch of other services I haven’t touched on–go ask your local librarian about them if you’re curious–but that Internet access thing…

Let’s say, just for a second, that Tim Worstall’s asshole plan gets traction and, tomorrow, the government shuts down every library and buys every citizen a subscription to Kindle Unlimited. What I’d like Worstall to tell me, right now, is how the fuck that’s supposed to help the people who were using the library for its digital services.

Kindle Unlimited is $9.99 a month, which is “not that much” if you’re the sort of privileged piece of shit who’s prepared to ignore the fact that some people struggle to spend $9.99 a month on food, let alone books. So, okay. The government subsidises it. Is the government going to subsidise everyone a Kindle, too? What if I don’t want a Kindle and want a Kobo or an iPad, instead? Or what if I’m okay with a Kindle, but want a fancier one than the government’s offering? So maybe the government starts offering a voucher system; every citizen gets a shiny fat cheque for $100 which they may put towards the ereader of their choice. And if they’d like to pay more out of their own pocket, then they may do so. And if Amazon or Apple or whoever wants to put the price of its ereading devices up by $100 to offset the sudden influx of cash, then they may do this, as well.

To those of you who think this system sounds ideal–and that companies would never do something so awful as raise prices to “compensate” for a government subsidy–I’d point out that, in effect, it’s how the US healthcare system works. Go look long and hard at your co-pays–and, in particular, compare them to health services provided to citizens in countries with price-regulated public systems–and think about what you’ve done.

Okay. So the government subsidises a subscription and it subsidises a device. Even discounting the fact that most devices sort of assume you have, yanno, a computer to use them with, all devices require an Internet connection in order to download books. But, I mean. That’s okay, I guess. At least people who can’t afford a connection at home can use the free wi-fi at the local public libra–

Oh. Yeah.


Fundamentally, this is about democracy. It’s about society. And it’s about what we value in those two things.

You’ll note that the scenario outlined above–Tim Worstall’s privatised libraryless utopia–involves a large amount of taxpayer money being funnelled into a system that is nothing short of welfare for people who need it least. Be that multi-billion dollar company Amazon, or upper-middle class assholes like yours truly who can afford the personal infrastructure implied by such a scheme.

Poor people? The actual disadvantaged members of society who rely on public services the most? Fuck them, amirite? I mean, Worstall’s system is totally equal; everyone gets the same. So why are they complaining? It’s democracy, damnit!

This is what you talk about when you talk about “Netflix for ebooks”. It’s not about Amazon, not really; I have nothing against Kindle Unlimited in particular or ebook subscriptions in general, though I probably wouldn’t use one (I like physically owning books in a way I don’t care about with other media, YMMV). It’s not about tradpub versus selfpub, though there are definitely some concerns in there, specifically on the selfpub side. It’s not even about authors; again, yes there are some concerns about revenue in the long term (ref. poor royalties in the music industry from Spotify, et al.), but personally I’d be fine with having my books included in the service, because the model Amazon is offering tadpub seems, on the face of it, like a pretty sweet deal.

But it’s not about any of that, not really.

This is about public infrastructure. It’s about gutting community services relied on by the most vulnerable for the benefit of the most powerful. And, yes, it’s also in part about the shitty way public libraries are treated by publishers and by technology companies. Because OverDrive is pretty terrible, and library licencing for ebooks is brutal.2 That’s not even getting into the growing self-pub market (how do self-published ebooks get into libraries, even?).

So yes, all of that sucks and none of that is the fault of libraries themselves, who–if my local branch is anything to go by–really are trying their best with the resources they have. Nor is it really the fault of the companies. They aren’t charities, and they invest only as much in the products they on-sell to libraries as they can expect to recover.

This situation? Of degraded public services, libraries or otherwise? This is our fault. All of us. Because we live in a society where “Netflix for ebooks” has more cultural cachet and more blog posts and more headlines than “well-funded and robust public library system”.

Government intervention–essentially forcing publishers and software developers to come to the content/platform party, be it by money or by legislation–could fix or at least alleviate every current problem facing libraries trying to move into the digital future. It could, but it won’t, because somehow we no longer live in a society that values egalitarian access to services.

If nothing else, consumers like gloss. We’re used to the smooth, effortless integration of products like iBooks and Kindle. More importantly, they’re the platforms we know about, particularly those of us in the demographic who “graduated” from public libraries prior to the advent of digital publishing. Do most people in my demographic peer group–roughly the same group that drives all “disruptive” technological innovations–even know libraries loan ebooks? I’m not sure. I suspect most of us don’t really think about it very much at all. I’m certain most of us don’t sit down to consider why we don’t think about it very much. Why do we know more about the commercial services than their freely offered eqiuvalents? What strange value proposition exists there that it should be so?

I don’t have an answer to that. Because the thing is, “Netflix for ebooks” isn’t a solution. It’s symptomatic of the problem. And not just one solely affecting libraries; we see the same trends in healthcare, telecommunications (why aren’t ISPs public utilities?), education, transport, housing… you freakin’ name it. The future is user pays.

I just hope we can afford the cost.

  1. In fact, there’s probably a direct inverse correlation between “time spent in the library in the afternoon” and “time spent at home on the Internet”, now that I think of it. ^
  2. No, the library can’t just buy one copy of an ebook and lend it out forever; they have “copies” of digital books as well as physical books, and those “copies” expire. Yeah. It’s fucked up. ^
2018-05-01T10:23:03+00:00 25th July, 2014|Tags: amazon, books, libraries, xp|Comments Off on Disrupting libraries.