By Greig Roselli (with Ray Pun)
News flash: libraries have been offering e-books for free long before Amazon started doling out an e-book subscription service. With Amazon’s recent Kindle Unlimited service, readers can access thousands of books for free. The catch? It’s ten dollars a month. But libraries have been offering a similar service for free to patrons for years. Why not more press on libraries? To answer some questions about libraries, free books, and bridging the digital divide, I teamed up with New York University Reference Librarian Ray Pun to discuss how libraries are helping to mind the digital gap. The result is this commentary.
Use It Or Lose It
There's a saying that goes "use it or lose it." It’s an apt reason to keep your brain active, because, you know, you’ll lose it. The analogy applies to why we use libraries and how they’re helping to not only bridge the digital divide but adding more fodder to the trough. If you don’t use books — well — I don’t even want to think about what it would be like to lose it.
I have a hunch that people think that since there’s the Internet then libraries don’t matter. It’s just a hunch, but it’s hidden in the comments I get on being a librarian: “You need a degree to do that?” Yes, librarians need a degree to do “that.” Putting aside my rancor for such questions, I think it tells us a little bit about the current cultural zeitgeist and where we’re going.
There's a misconception that if I can Google it then it must be free. While the open Internet is indeed a treasure trove of knowledge, it's also a depository of useless junk. Librarians keep the door open between the open Internet and its mass chaos of information and the stuff that’s behind closed doors.
To give an idea of what I am talking about, take a look at the Internet Public Library. It’s a deceptively simple website, but it does something different that Google does not do. Behind the HTML code and links are a team of librarians who are constantly updating links to provide access to good information. So, if you need to get reputable and accurate sources you could Google it, but knowing that a team of information specialists curate and cull the “good stuff” makes the Internet Public Library, a unique place.
Knowledge Deserves To Be Free
We tend to think of libraries as brick and mortar buildings that house books, and while this is true, the concept of “the library” is less about locking knowledge up in a safe deposit box, and more about the free dissemination of ideas. The word free is cheap, and I do not mean to suggest that “free” equates with “worthless.”
Libraries are free in the sense that they keep us as a community free from all the nasty stuff that comes from not being free. What would it look like to live in the tyranny of a library-less world? I’d say it would be rather gloomy. And not too pretty.
We might think, “I already own an iPad, and my house has enough books, so why should I bother about using the library?” The logic that stipulates freedom with “I already have that” is the logic that one day could threaten the very concept libraries embody — equal access to knowledge. I use knowledge in the broadest sense of the term. Knowledge cannot be confined by a book, iPad, or even Google’s vast search engine. Yet -- not everyone owns an iPad. And while according to an April 2014 Pew Research study, 87% of adults have access to the Internet, it isn’t 100%. Some libraries have started to mend the gap by lending out tablets such as iPads to people, library users and complete strangers with library cards! Other institutions such as the New York Public Library are experimenting with a new service: lending portable MiFi Hotspot devices to underserved youth and communities by allowing them to have Internet access outside of the library hours.
Knowledge is bound up with community. Knowledge is supposed to be shareable, and the access we enjoy through our libraries is only as free as we struggle for its freedom. That’s why libraries, even though they are strapped with mounting operational costs and the threat of being cut off from state, local, and federal funding, continue to innovate, to continue to bridge the digital divide. For example, the simple innovation of providing MiFi devices to users who cannot access library services during opening hours closes the gap a little bit. Or loaning out iPads and laptops to users who otherwise cannot afford these gateways to knowledge.
Support your public library, starting today and in numerous ways: whether it is with monetary or book donations, paying off your library fines or writing to your state and local assembly person about why your library is important to you and your community. You need to stand up for your library because you are standing up for your community. When you keep visiting your libraries, it brings up their “public services metrics” or in layman’s terms, the “headcount” reader goes up, which translates into more resources libraries can roll out for public use. Keeping the building filled with people who use it is good for the library. They can then report to their constituents about the increases of public users in their libraries on a quarterly basis.
I'll End With A Story
It reminds me of a story a friend of mine told me that I thought reflects what libraries do. When he was a teenager, he lived in a small town in South Louisiana with a local municipal public library. He went to the library in the Summer to find a book he wanted to read. He told me, “I don’t remember who told me about the book, but it was called Birdy by William Wharton.” The library did not have it nor did any of the local branches, so the librarian looked at him with a smile on her face and said, “Let’s do an interlibrary loan.” He told me that he didn’t know what an interlibrary loan was, but it sounded neat. “She had me fill out a form — and mind you; this was before the Internet was all the rage,” he said. “In a few weeks, the book arrived from the State Library, and I was able to read the book. I had no idea such a small miracle was possible.” For him, it was like Christmas in July; he’s now a writer and teaches philosophy. Now that ninety percent of all libraries in the U.S. loan out e-books, interlibrary loan looks like an antiquated version of lending, but most libraries still have it and it’s the most thanked-for feature of public libraries by patrons.
Librarians intrinsically know the value of libraries. We just don’t talk about it enough. Let’s spread the word. A call to action: use it and don’t lose it — for the present and future lovers of knowledge out there. Including me. And you. All of us. You can still subscribe to Kindle Unlimited if you want, but check out the library too.
Image Source: Greig Roselli