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Still Bookish After All These Years
January 31, 2013 - 10:12pm

This month, students in my January course have been reading about books and culture and have also been reading actual books, ones they chose for themselves. (These have ranged from House of Leaves and Crime and Punishment to popular YA visions of a dystopic future - crazy-popular these days - to books by those familiar names on the best seller list who seem to have mastered book cloning.) They conducted a survey and found (no surprise to me) that their fellow students are less inclined to read ebooks than older adults are. Their contemporaries enjoy an escape from screens that old-fashioned books offer, and like to pass on stories from hand to hand, hard to do with DRM-d digital files. They also are unimpressed by "enhanced" books, preferring to interact without digital interference. This week, as we’re wrapping things up, they speculated about what the world of books might look like in ten years, and came up with some intriguing scenarios and proposals, some of which I’ve heard from book pundits, some of which are closer than we think. None of their predictions involved the death of print, the dominance of a single corporation, or the rapid decline in literacy or a taste for books. The economic models of the businesses involved are likely to be shaken up, but not the market – or so they think.  And as they will be part of the future, I’m willing to take their word for it.

As I left the building where the class meets I chatted with some humanities faculty and mentioned what we’d been talking about. They seemed at first apprehensive, then surprised and relieved that students predicted a future for books. I'm not surprised, but then I’m in a profession that everyone who knows nothing about it believes to be doomed, so I’m a dab hand at defusing imminent apocalypse. I also don’t have public officials claiming my discipline’s very existence is such a leech on the public purse that students should be actively discouraged from majoring in them.  (Remember The Republican War on Science? It seems odd to open a new front, denouncing the humanities and social sciences while demanding more STEM majors, when those youngsters might end up believing in evolution, human-caused climate change, and other troubling ideas.)  

Both librarians and humanities professors have a tendency to feel on the edge of some kind of cliff, poised on the last bit of ground crumbling under our existence. It’s so much easier to give up than to negotiate a truce with hostile and powerful forces that are staring over their own cliffs and trying to grab hold of everything they can to avoid going over. For academic librarians, rising prices and loss of control over content has led to decades of appeasement – saving money by buying by the article to save the cost of a journal, cutting small publications to pay for the increased cost of a Big Deal – but finally, finally, academic authors are embracing open access options, and publishers are reading the writing on the wall (though sometimes they go for some sticker shock, perhaps in order to say “you want it? Okaaaay … how’s this for a price tag? Yeah, we didn’t think you wanted it that bad. Now, get back to work.” Publishers aren’t interested in making less profit, though they’re willing to adjust their grip by sending the bill somewhere else.) There were times I thought the current system was too entrenched, but then reminded myself that the current state of affairs is fairly new. When I started working in the field, there were no Big Deals, no bundles, no licenses. We think change can’t possibly come, but it already did. It’s time to do it again, but with a more public focus.

Public libraries are running into a similar sense of crisis. Trade publishers are trying to reset prices for libraries, and so we hear a lot of “if we don’t find a way to give patrons ebooks, we’ll become irrelevant” as well as “there’s no future for us if we depend on publishers; we should turn libraries into centers of creativity and publish locally-generated content.” I’m not convinced by either of those positions. As a public library patron, I’m not upset if the library refuses to stock overpriced ebooks (or is unable to loan me a digital version of a book they can get me in print). It won’t make me stop using the library. But I might be a little frustrated if they told me they were breaking up with those big publishers, because who needs ‘em anyway? Go ahead and help local writers publish books, if that’s what the community wants, but could I please borrow a copy of Tana French’s latest novel, even thought the publisher is in New York?

I realize the public libraries differences with intransigent publishers may seem irreconcilable, but just hold a little longer . . . we’ll work this out. This month a bill was introduced into the Connecticut legislature that would require publishers to sell libraries books at the same price as individual consumers – and it reminded me of a little-known bit of library history. We've been here before! And lived to tell the tale.

In 1966, when publishers believed the sky was falling (because publishers always do), many of them decided to charge libraries a premium price for “library editions.” At that time, money was flowing into school budgets because the Russians had spooked us with Sputnik. Publishers figured they would suffer catastrophe if they couldn’t somehow change the way things worked, but Congress wasn’t impressed. Thanks to a few persistent librarians and some principled public officials, publishers found they couldn’t treat libraries differently than consumers. (And thanks to the HathiTrust, you can read the record of a Senate hearing that raised the question.) And surprise, surprise, publishers didn’t topple over the cliff. Nor will they if this Connecticut bill is the start of a public insistence that what was fair for print should be just as fair for digital.

So often, we exaggerate how immutable some problem is, or overestimate the threat of something new. And for some reason, every generations seems to think they are the last to care for books. But I’m not worried. I have students who reassure me that we're going to be okay.     


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