Great topic. Honestly I’m not sure about my reaction. I feel like a bad library patron b/c I rarely check out books anymore, but I’m sitting in a library right now (downtown LA) and it’s really great! Really interesting to think about the simple act of presence as important contribution / participation in the library ecosystem.
I agree I think ebook lending always has been and maybe always will be kind of weird. One reaction I have is “what’s the point?” — that is, hardly seems worthwhile as a mode of engaging with libraries — but I realize that comes from a place of a lot of privilege. To Robin Sloan’s point, a library isn’t just about book lending, it’s about community space, but also makes sense that people should be free to use just one or the other of those aspects. (Can a library be “unbundled”? Is picking and choosing how to engage with a library somehow unfair? Is that a bad thing?)
A lot of this seems entangled with inherent tensions between the economics of how books are made and distributed, and the need for open, equitable access. The Macmillan policy thing Robin mentions is one weird artifact of that and I can’t really tell if it’s good or bad or (probably) neither, just an easy thing to latch onto because of how it illuminates larger disconnects.
I do think another interesting thing he mentions in that newsletter is how ebook lending seems to prioritize recent books; most books don’t even exist as ebooks, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to worry about making sure dozens of copies of the latest bestseller are available when the same resources could bring readers a wider selection of other books. (Or maybe it does? Librarians of course spend a lot of time grappling with these questions and balancing some idealized notion of library mission with delivering what patrons are actually asking for! No single clear answer…)
All of my favorite discoveries at the Berkeley Public Library have been books that are two years old, or five, or twenty. I get it: not everyone is like me. There are surely some library patrons who focus (almost exclusively?) on the new arrival shelf, snatching up the freshly-published titles as soon as they arrive. Should these patrons determine the library’s priorities, though? Libraries are—or can be—powerfully atemporal : setting material from decades ago up alongside material from months ago and making it all seem equally appealing, even equally urgent .
Given how many competing priorities and functions we look to libraries to fill, on some level it’s a miracle they work as well as they do!
Back to ebooks — I like his final point that we seem to be stuck at a kind of local maximum with the ebook landscape and that better possible futures are out there but may require getting through some experimentation and uncertainty. Very hard to overcome the gravity well of Amazon but important to try. Things like guerrilla libraries, underground / independent ebook / PDF archives etc. seem like important grounds for experimentation here. Ditto new tools for notes, highlights, sharing book info…
We should start a blogchain around weird economics of books / reading; I feel like there are similarly interesting thorny questions about bookstores too…lots of possibilities but lots of uncertainty about what might work. I’m writing this on my phone at the moment so kinda rambly but I’d like to think / talk about this stuff more!