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What’s a Library?

February 7, 2012
Green Free Library in Wellsboro, PA

The Green Free Library in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, where I learned to love books and libraries.

My commentary thus far has been about books, but today I want to talk about several articles I’ve read recently, all of them about libraries. Everyone knows what a library is: a collection of books, right? Sometimes it’s a building that houses all those books, sometimes it’s a room that houses them, and nowadays, sometimes, it’s a virtual place that houses them.

You Are What You Read. Or Are You?

My favorite current literary critic, James Wood, wrote in the New Yorker last fall about packing up his father-in-law’s books after his death, and in the process he ruminates about what a library says about you and what libraries are good for. As he simultaneously describes the person and the library of his father-in-law, Wood seems to be reinforcing the age-old maxim that your library is a reflection of who you are as a person. His father was Algerian, an immigrant to France as well as (later) to America, well-traveled, multilingual; his library displayed a huge atlas on a lectern and included many volumes in many languages about faraway places.

Wood’s efforts to donate his father-in-law’s vast library seem doomed to failure. Institutions aren’t interested in personal libraries unless the books are rare or owned by famous writers or movers and shakers. Used book merchants can’t afford to buy them or can’t afford to store them, presumably because so few people purchase used books in this day and age. His father-in-law’s library contains many obscure books about Algeria, Egypt, and other areas of the Maghreb, Wood says, but many standard texts and popular novels are included, ones that all of us own (the Bible, the Iliad, etc.). Wood determines not to burden his children with such a task, because, he muses, “Isn’t a private library simply a universal legacy pretending to be an individual one?”

Many of us who love books would be astounded to hear Wood declare that he envies the writer whose box of prized books was inadvertently picked up by the garbage truck. He relishes the lightening of the things we collect—postcards, CDs, shirts, and books. Surely books are “ruins” as much as any other collection of items in our lives. In his last look at his father-in-law’s library, he concludes, “These thousands of volumes . . . incarnated the shape of his life, but not the facets of his character.”

The Difference with Digital

In November Robert Darnton wrote about the Digital Public Library of America in The New York Review of Books, comparing the effort to digitize and provide for free all books ever published with Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment metaphor of sharing ideas in the same way the light of candles can be shared: giving without diminishing the other. At any other time in my life, probably, I would wholeheartedly endorse the idea of a free, digital library of all books ever published. But having just finished Jaron Lanier‘s You Are Not a Gadget (review post to come), the idea gives me pause. Why must every book be represented? How current will the books be? How will writers earn their living when we demand—simply because the technology is possible—that they give us the fruits of their labors and minds?

In the “real” (as opposed to virtual) library, we can borrow a book for a certain period of time. That book was purchased from the publisher by our local library, with funds we donate or from fees. Because we have to appear in person to borrow, libraries have to be local, so an author could expect many libraries to purchase her book. Some of us like to own the book to read when we’re ready, to read slower than the library’s borrowing time permits, or to reread. So the author could be assured of purchases by book lovers, too. If everything is digital, libraries don’t have to be local to serve us all, and we can, presumably, read as slowly as we want and as repeatedly as we want. And we get it all for free. So where is the cost for the book? The downside for writers and publishers is that they won’t be able to earn income from writing and publishing.

Darnton explores several scenarios for managing a more just system of copyright and payment to authors, but I remain skeptical of our voracious appetite for free content online. As Lanier explains in his book, free online content is devaluing human thought and expression, and we have yet to show in any significant way that we can get beyond that problem in our digital world.

What’s Hiding on Your Kindle?

Several of my friends and relatives have fallen in love with their Kindle. And they tell me I would love it, too. My deep-seated nostalgia for books notwithstanding, I know how malleable I can be about new habits, and I understand the convenience and fun. Yet I resist the lure of the Kindle, and James Meek provides a biting commentary to keep my curiosity in check. In the London Review of Books (also in an issue from last November—can you tell how far behind I am in my reading?), he explains his dismay at discovering the ubiquity of other readers of e-books he’s purchased. If you use the highlighting feature, you can see how many other readers before you marked the same passage. It’s like reading a used book that someone else marked: not a deal breaker, but a bit annoying.

Meeks’s essay is a fun read, marked by silly puns (“a syncing feeling”) and self-conscious bookishness. But his assessment of our future libraries is grim (to me): “On the urban bookshelves of the crowded future world only the loved and the beautiful will survive.”

In my world, every book I own is beautiful and loved, so I’ll keep buying bookcases and carrying books—not gadgets—wherever I go.

  1. Bill Keller, a columnist for the New York Times, had some interesting thoughts about copyright and pirated material, which is somewhat related to my musings about the future of libraries.

    I found his response to reader comments on the column to be more intriguing than the original column.

  2. Dave permalink

    Joanne, great essay. One thing I’ve learned, thanks to my librarian wife, is that digital content is treated the same as hard copy from a borrowing and licensing perspective. Libraries license a certain number of copies, and that’s how many they can loan out at a time. It may even be possible that authors earn “more” if publishers can happily remove the production cost and share those benefits with authors. I’m not sure that is happening, of course…

    Separately, to address the topic of our addiction to free content and how to monetize content online, I suggest you check out Fred Dewey’s startup – it’s a great way to support the content you love, automatically. Who wouldn’t spend $5 a month to support sites they enjoy? Check it out, tell your friends!



  3. Dave,

    What an excellent idea! I’ve been meaning to check out Fred’s site for ages, and now I think I will!

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