In the July 18th issue of Forbes magazine, Tim Worstall proposed that we “close the libraries and buy everyone an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription.” This piggybacked on Amazon’s recently unveiled subscription service that gives you unlimited access to 600,000 titles (although it is worth investigating what those titles include and do not include). He argues that this gives for more access than any library can offer and, based on library budgets in the UK, could be done at a savings, particularly if a special mass subscription price could be negotiated (I can see Jeff Bezos rubbing his hands together now!).
While from a simple cost calculation this might be true (and there is a question of what would happen if Amazon were given an even greater monopoly of the book market–for example consider what happens with cable rates) there are some compelling reasons not to go this direction:
1. It gives Amazon (or Google) a greater monopoly on the access to books, and control over what books are available to the reading public. Our current library system, as de-centralized as it is, allows for local control, patron interest, and access through inter-library loan to most of the libraries in the country.
2. Libraries provide services to every class in society without charge. This includes borrowing privileges, internet access, and often loans of tablets and other electronic resources. Will Amazon also provide all users tablets, Wi-Fi at no charge? If not, this is only books for some.
3. Libraries provide trained reference librarians who can help access materials one would never find on Amazon, ranging from public records to a myriad of databases. Replacing this with Amazon at best assumes that heuristics and algorithms will guide you and at worst makes you your own reference librarian.
4. On a related note, online resources, whether from Amazon or others, are uncurated. That is, it is totally up to the user to assess the reliability of the information you obtain. Librarians are not infallible curators, but they devote time and research to assessing what books and other resources to acquire.
5. Amazon will recommend books based on your interests. Librarians will do this as well and also help you explore new interests and connect you with titles Amazon’s algorithms wouldn’t come up with.
6. While one can listen to a computer audio voice “reading” a book, libraries offer to children the wondrous experience of librarian-storytellers skilled at reading books and kindling in children the love of story.
7. Libraries offer a “third place” between home and work, whether for children at Story Hours, or teens after school, or senior citizens. Our local library hosts various community meetings and summer concerts. When a number of us in my community gathered to oppose the development of a local wetland, where did we meet? The library.
8. Libraries represent money invested into a local community that enriches our communal life. An Amazon subscription is not taxed and only draws money out of the community into the expansive vision of Jeff Bezos.
I’m not a Luddite. I have an e-reader and do read some books that way. Actually libraries offer many digital resources for lending at no cost. Given that you don’t “own” your Amazon content because of Digital Rights Management, might it not make sense to borrow through the library that you or others in your community support with your taxes?
The larger issue is what kind of a society we want, one where all our experiences are mediated virtually and digitally, or one where we remember that we are physical and social beings meant for real human contact in real physical places. I suspect the reality for us in this digital age is that the best answer involves both-and thinking rather than the either-or argument proposed in the Forbes article. Both-and solutions may be more complicated than what seems a simple solution of closing the libraries. But I would contend that like so many aspects of life, simpler means smaller and less qualitatively rich. Do we really want that?