There is so much going on right now, I am feeling a little dizzy (though that could also be related to the cold I’ve been fighting all week.) Somehow, like an unusual alignment of planets, SOPA, PIPA, RWA, and Penguin’s decision to withdraw the ebooks and audiobooks they publish from public libraries have all contributed to an unusual tidal swell. People are beginning to notice that big publishers are not really all that interested in authors or readers; they are interested in consolidating control of distribution channels so that the only participants in culture are creators who work for little or nothing and consumers who can only play if they can pay. These corporate publishers’ actions are intended not just to protect their traditional business model but to construct a new model that puts an end to sharing, because sharing means goods can slip out of their control. Culture and knowledge, in this new publishing regime, are not common goods, they are intellectual property best controlled by corporations. If that means research findings should have limited distribution, no problem. If that means an end to public libraries, fine. Even if libraries buy books and encourage a market for books, and we know they do, they threaten corporate control, and so in a digital era they should be wither away, along with other public institutions.
I can’t put it better than these bloggers did this week.
Steve Lawson “Publishers Hate You. You Should Hate Them Back.” (See Also . . .)
“Publishers care about customers, not readers, and they hate readers who don’t pay full freight . . . Publishers have contempt for the authors they need to write works, and the readers they need to read works. Publishers are scared that the internet is going to disintermediate their asses into the dustbin of history, and the best response that many of them have come up with is to express their fear through hatred.”
“Both [Penguin's decision and the RWA] are driven by publishers wanting to block what they produce from partaking in the open cultural commons in a fair and equitable way . . . Private interests are attacking the public good. Let's stop them.”
Wayne Bivens-Tatum “Libraries and the Commodification of Culture”
“A noncommercial ethic can coexist alongside markets, and all can thrive. But public goods and noncommercial spaces can’t coexist with a market fundamentalism that believes all public goods and noncommercial spaces are evil, at least not if that market fundamentalism controls the laws. The more or less successful drive to extend intellectual property rights into perpetuity and to wither the public domain into nonexistence is a good indication that the ethic motivating libraries isn’t winning many political battles.”
And finally, not a blogger, but a Metafilter commenter who is in library school and has worked in public libraries for several years and has seen the consequences of market fundamentalism up close and ugly, puts the reader in the place of a typical public library user.
“Undoubtedly libraries are a good thing. The access and training that we provide for technology isn't offered by any other public service (largely because public services are rapidly becoming a dirty word in this gilded age of decadence and austerity), and without our services it wouldn't be the end of the world, but it would be a significant dimming.
“If you can take yourself out of your first world techie social media smart-shoes for a second then imagine this: you're 53 years old, you've been in prison from 20 to 26, you didn't finish high school, and you have a grandson who you're now supporting because your daughter is in jail. You're lucky, you have a job at the local Wendy's. You have to fill out a renewal form for government assistance which has just been moved online as a cost saving measure (this isn't hypothetical, more and more municipalities are doing this now). You have a very limited idea of how to use a computer, you don't have Internet access, and your survival (and the survival of your grandson) is contingent upon this form being filled out correctly . . . ”
I will let you read the rest of this thought experiment at Metafilter. It’s heartbreakingly, breathtakingly real. And though the writer believes it’s too late, that public libraries are dying and the combination of neglect and outright hostility to the very existence of public institutions will soon finish them off, I keep coming back to this line: “If you have any concept of a free and equal society, then libraries are still an integral part of that.”
I have to have hope that libraries will survive, that this tidal swell is part of a larger awakening. But it's a moving description of where we are today, and what we have already lost.