01 April 2008

If I ran the library

Tim Spalding, founder of LibraryThing, sounds the alarm in a March 26 post about some collateral damage from the demise of traditional top-down publishing. When authors make an end run around publishers by using a self-publishing service like Lulu.com, even if they succeed in reaching a large audience of readers, their books don't get bought by libraries.
Publishers used to be the judges of intellectual and literary merit. If a book didn't get chosen by a publisher, it had no merit. If it ended up in print anyway, it must be the work of a vanity press, and therefore undeserving of shelf space in a library. Spalding rightly argues that in the 21st Century, this logic has become nonsense. The problem is, nobody told the libraries, so they forgot to turn off the the vanity-press filter, and as a result nothing self-published gets in, no matter how good.
Spalding is worried about this, and he's making Andrew Savikas at Tools of Change worried, too. Me, I think I'll just go to the zoo.

The Monkey House, 1890, from www.victorianlondon.org

Zoos are a lot like libraries. Both were invented by people who had a surplus of money, time, and curiosity, and inevitably became collectors. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, a humanistic impulse in Europe and the US led to the establishment of zoos and libraries that were open to the public, supported by taxes or philanthropy. Give the common people books and baboons, and they will be educated, or at least entertained.
Behind the charitable impulse of opening these collections to the public was a hard fact: The average European or American worker in 1800 might live his whole life--all 30-odd years of it--without ever reading a book other than the Bible. And he would certainly never see a crocodile or a giraffe. Libraries and zoos opened worlds that were previously off limits to ordinary people.
Zoos have fallen on hard times lately, and it's not just because of animal-rights activists. Photography and lithography flooded the market with realistic images of exotic animals, and then movies and television put every toddler on a first-name basis with ostriches, penguins, and kangaroos. In other words, technology brought into our homes the experience we used to need zoos for, and at little or no cost to the consumer.
Are you listening, libraries? Your mission was to make learning and entertainment available for free to folks who couldn't afford to buy books. If the Internet takes over that job, maybe we won't need to keep the libraries open any more. And maybe it won't matter if there are important books that never make it onto library shelves.
Or maybe it will matter. Consider the Scimitar Oryx. These North African antelopes are extinct in the wild, and they wouldn't exist at all if they weren't preserved in zoos. Libraries, like zoos, offer a safeguard against extinction, a promise that the best ideas of our lifetime won't disappear along with the hardware and software used to deliver them.
In my March 22 post, I defined publishing mojo as finding the best ideas, presenting them clearly, delivering them conveniently, and preserving them for the future. The first three of these functions can easily be taken over by non-print media. That last one, though, is where print wins hands down, with the help of libraries.

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