BackTalk: Books, Books, Books!

By Laura Magzis

In October 2006, a study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the American Library Association and conducted by Florida State University found that 99 percent of U.S. public libraries provide Internet access free of charge and that 71 percent of librarians believe the most crucial effect of this is to provide online access to patrons who do not otherwise have it. Following that study, a provocative opinion piece in Kansas's Lawrence Journal-World described libraries as “inefficient” and “obsolete” and made the startling assertion that at “any” library, “the stacks are empty; it's the computers that are busy.”

I don't intend to downplay the importance of public libraries and their role in helping close the digital divide. The “stacks are empty” premise, however, really burns my toast. It may be an unpopular and rarely heard opinion, but many people value libraries because they are full of books we can read for free. I fear that negative attitudes like those expressed in the Journal-World, paradoxically coupled with positive assessments like the Gates study, slight an important function that public libraries still serve: books, books, books for free, free, free.

What's a book?

You remember books? Smallish, flat, rectangular things made out of wood pulp that don't need to be plugged in or charged, that neither glow nor hum, that are invulnerable to viruses and spam. Oh, and they're portable, perfect for tucking into pocket or purse, and great conversation starters at a party or on the bus. I'm talking about books, not “information.” Books, not “technology.” And I'm not even going to get into all the circulation-boosting nonbook materials that comprise an increasing part of many public library collections. The point is libraries, particularly public libraries, are not limited in their function to the technological provision of timely information.

Every so often the trade press publishes an alarmist article about the high cost vs. entertainment value of a new book, compared with that of a computer game, DVD, or CD, and predicts the end of book publishing as we know it as a result. Invariably these articles lead to a flurry of letters reminding people that those expensive books are generally obtainable at the library for free. Now, avid readers may, of course, have to delay gratification until their favorite author's new book is returned by another fan, and, yes, checking out that book likely requires some knowledge of their library catalog's hold/reserve function. No big deal, right? Yet somehow this keeps getting lost in all the hoopla about technology. Speaking of technology, how many readers do you know who like to curl up with a good ebook?

By the numbers

If people don't read as much as they used to, as some suggest, circulation statistics are not reflecting that. According to the Index of American Public Library Circulation and Expenditures, public library circulation was up 1.8 percent. Hennen's American Public Library Ratings for 2006 found the same circulation trend, reporting a 2.3 percent “multiyear climb,” and LJ's book-buying study calls circulation “the success story” of the annual survey, begun in 1998 (LJ 2/15/07).

Let me bottom line it for you: libraries must not let the current focus on technology overshadow the activity of people who still read books for pleasure and visit their library in search of free, portable entertainment. Often the patrons boosting our circulation statistics are the very same patrons who queue up to use the Internet on our computers. They may want more technology, but I'm not convinced that they want it at the expense of books.

Let's remember

Who among us hasn't visited a book superstore and seen rafts of people enjoying the comfy chairs, sipping lattes in the café, or parked on the floor studying? I even know people who visit their local Barnes & Noble or Borders to research books they then order from independent bookstores or their library. What are we to make of this? Not that libraries should rush to add cafés or begin adding Yu-Gi-Oh cards to their collection. Nor should we view the growth of book superstores as a threat. Rather, this should be viewed as a different sort of divide. If Jane Rich Reader can afford to buy a shopping cart full of $30 hardcovers whenever she feels like it, shouldn't Joe Poor Reader have the opportunity to read the same “shopping cart” full of books at the library for free?

Public libraries are uniquely democratic and democratizing institutions. Even as we struggle to provide more technological services, we must not forget that there's more to life than “information.” Whether or not you believe that people don't read as much as they used to, it's inarguable that people visit their public libraries in search of free, portable entertainment. Sure, some of our more colorful patrons and staff provide free entertainment inadvertently. But I'm talking about entertainment in the form of free DVDs, audiobooks, and CDs. Oh, yeah, and books. Let's not forget books.

Author Information
Laura Magzis is a graduate student in the School of Information and Library Science at the Pratt Institute, New York.
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