Does Your Local Library Deserve to Survive?

Come on a hypothetical journey with me. Imagine a future where ebooks are the dominant format of books. It’s a world many people don’t think will ever exist. Boomerang’s own Aimee Burton is one of them (I’ve challenged her to a blargument, but until she picks up the gauntlet I threw down this will just have to be hypothetical). But let’s just imagine dead tree books are now the poor cousin of ebooks. Kind of like CDs already are to MP3s. In this world, there are still rabid collectors out there who buy every antique Stephenie Meyer out there, but for the most part, most people do their book reading electronically. In this world is your local library something you want your tax money spent on?

Before the mouth-breather with the orthopaedic shoes starts throwing the kids’ books around in the quiet corner, just think about it. I love local libraries. I love how empty they are. I love how many books are there. I love the crazy old cat lady who works there two out of every four days. But in the world I’ve just mentioned, what role does a local library have that cannot be fulfilled by every person’s internet connection in their own home?

The answer, at least for now, seems to be free access. Try as they might (read: they are not trying) the publishing industry is yet to come up with a way to make the full range of ebooks that are out there commercially available to government subsidised libraries. John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan US, recently described libraries in the digital age as a “thorny problem”. As the excellent Eric Hellman paraphrases:

In the past, getting a book from libraries has had a tremendous amount of friction. You have to go to the library, maybe the book has been checked out and you have to come back another time. If it’s a popular book, maybe it gets lent ten times, there’s a lot of wear and tear, and the library will then put in a reorder. With ebooks, you sit on your couch in your living room and go to the library website, see if the library has it, maybe you check libraries in three other states. You get the book, read it, return it and get another, all without paying a thing.

It’s hard to see a sound business reason why a publisher would ever want a workable system for library ebooks. And yet, as it stands, it’s up to publishing companies to come up with a solution to this problem. Ultimately, however, when you look at the depth and breadth of knowledge available for free on the internet nowadays, it’s hard to make an argument that every person needs free access to books. Many libraries are already shifting their focus away from merely being repositories of dead trees. Knowledge is no longer contained solely within paper covers. But, of course, knowledge was only one reason I used to go to libraries. Without my local library, there are a number of dodgy fantasy writers I never would have read.

So my questions today are these: Does your local library deserve to be saved? If so, how? If not, will you mourn the passing of the local library? If so, why? Share your library stories in the comments below.