Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Libraries are STILl ESSENTIAL!!

I disagree with Craig's thesis in this post so strenuously that I almost wonder if he wrote this post to get me to break my hiatus a day early. So I'm doing the next best thing: writing my response a day early, but not posting it until later. Score!

Here's his thesis:

Public libraries might be an example of an institution designed for an earlier time that doesn't make as much sense now as then. It's perhaps just another luxury we've grown accustomed to. We're used to its being free -- the knee-jerk response is why should I pay for something that the government will give me. Maybe it shouldn't.

Let me be blunt here: as much as I adore the Buffalo area, if this community decided to do away with its libraries entirely, that would be my official last straw. I'd leave as soon as humanly possible.

What a society values, a society is willing to pay for. The fact that we're still willing, albeit less so and more grudgingly lately, to pay for free access to books, periodicals, government documents, films, and music recordings says to me that we still value those things and view their widespread availability as a good thing. There would, I think, be a very big fundamental difference between a society that views reading as sufficiently important and universal a right to pay for libraries and one which takes the view that your reading should be limited to only those books you can afford.

It's easy to say things like "Look at all the books available for free on the Web!" and "Look how cheap you can buy just about any book on Amazon!" But really, that's not at all the same thing. To take the first claim: sure, there are sites like Project Gutenberg that make the texts of many public domain books available online. But they're not free, not really: I still have to pay for my computer, and I still have to pay for the Internet access I use to access Project Gutenberg. That's not free - - at least, it's not in the same sense "free" for me to read Anna Karenina on Gutenberg that it would be "free" for me to walk down to the library and check the book out with my library card. And as ubiquitous as the Web seems to those of us who get to use it every day, the cost of being able to go online is a very real cost indeed. I know people who simply can't afford Internet access.

(And this is to say nothing of the fact that there are nowhere near the same number of books available for free online as there are at my own local library branch, much less the entirety of, say, the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system.)

As for books being cheap on Amazon or other online sources, well, that's a troubling thing to say, in my opinion. I don't make enough money to buy every book I want to read. That's a simple fact of life: I will probably never make enough to buy a copy of every book I want to read. So, when it comes to buying books, I have to be pretty selective. (The high price of graphic novels is a real sticking point with me - - those damn things are absurdly overpriced, in my opinion, which annoys me because there are a lot of them that I would like to read.) But that's just buying books. When it comes to reading books, I don't have to be so selective, because there's the library. My personal reading life would be severely hampered if I had to limit myself to reading only those books which I could afford to buy. And I'm not even that badly off: I have a roof over my head, and I can still get to Borders every now and again. But I don't buy nearly as many books as I used to, because I have other things to buy: food, drugs for Little Quinn, diapers, cat litter, et cetera. Because of the library, though, I don't have to limit my reading. That's a big thing to me: the fact that I don't need to own every book I read opens up huge vistas of reading to me.

Frankly, I'm always astonished when people tell me that they never go to the library because they like to own every book they read. That attitude completely baffles me. If there's a service that can provide you, free of charge, with access to more books than you could ever read in a lifetime, why rigidly insist upon owning every book you want to read? Just from the standpoint of not having paid for every book I've checked out and not liked, I think I end up ahead. I hate buying a book that turns out to be a stinker.

Here is what it boils down to: I view reading as probably the most fundamental right that exists, beyond the "biggies" of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Free access to books is, as far as I am concerned, an essential part of a democratic society, and it's absolutely essential to a society that maintains its belief that anyone can accomplish anything as long as they work hard at it. The day we decide that reading is something that must be paid for by each individual reader is, to me, the day we decide that we're no longer a democratic society. There are people out there, many of them, real people, who don't have enough extra pennies in their budget per month to afford more than a single mass-market paperback novel. The idea that these folks can still go to their library and check out a hardback copy of, well, any book at all signifies to me a big part of the greatness of this country.

Maybe America will eventually decide that libraries are, as Craig suggests, a mere luxury. But it would be heartbreaking to me to learn that my country had decided that reading is a mere luxury. And make no mistake: that's what it would mean if we collectively decided "No books, unless you can pay for each one." This is a tough country we got here, folks - - we've built a nation around a mix of egalitarianism and libertarianism, which is not always the best of mixes. But as far as I'm concerned, when it comes to reading, the more egalitarian, the better, and free libraries are the best way to accomplish this that I know.

(Now, the issue of whether the B&ECPL system is too bloated is an entirely different one. I think it probably is. But shutting them entirely? To me, that's pure insanity.)

No comments: