Issues: The Future of Libraries
Access to books is a human right. And without widespread broadband access in America – and little hope of achieving it soon – libraries are becoming the last hope for many people. But libraries aren't doing so well right now. They are losing their funding, circulation has cratered in poor areas, and publishers are hiking fees and instituting predatory terms for ebook lending. If people are being slowly, gradually denied access to information, that doesn't make headlines. We can change that.
Everybody can talk about the biggest issues facing libraries, as well as how libraries have helped them in their lives. We've put up a site and a day for this. You should click the link right after this sentence.
Metafilter user "codacorolla" touched on this last year in a summary of the modern issues facing libraries:
So, why? Why, when we're such an essential service, and across all party lines are a loved and valued institution? Mostly because we moved too slow to respond to the Internet, and also because instead of fighting back during times of austerity, loudly proclaiming that we're the best investment you can make for lifelong learning, social stability, childhood development, and community cohesion. This is, in part, because outside of the ALA (which is a great organization, a great lobbying body, but perhaps not quite strong enough nor well funded enough) there is no large, overarching public library thing. There isn't a central office that can dictate policy, allocate funds, and launch a massive PR campaign. At different levels, yes, there are state and county and non-profit organizations, but the existential crises that libraries now face is massive, universal, and needs coordinated effort.
We need to do something which I'll admit is ill defined and perhaps impossible: we need to become the center of civic engagement in our communities. We're one of the few places left in our society where a great cross-section of people regularly interact, and also one of the few places that is free and non-commercial. Even museums, to bow and scrape to the master of Austerity, have begun to put branding on their exhibits, as if they were a sort of cultural NASCAR. We have amazing potential power, but without concerted effort I'm afraid it will be wasted. It will look better to save 10 dollars a year per person in taxes instead of funding community computer workshops, and childhood literacy programs, and community gardens. All the while we play desperate catch-up, trying to get a hold on ebooks, and licensing out endless sub-quality software for meeting room reservations and computer sign-ups and all this other rentier software capitalism instead of developing free and open source solutions and providing small systems with the expertise to use them. Our amazing power is squandered as we cut our staff, fail to attract skilled and diverse talent, and act as a band aid to the mounting social ills caused by slash and burn governance in the name of low taxes and some nebulous idea of freedom that seems to equate with living in a good society but not paying your share for it.
In the meantime, even as libraries are recasting themselves as community centers, their future as archives remains in doubt. As new digital formats age, they become obsolete and fall out of favor with patrons; every time this happens, a library's archive ceases to stay relevant. At present, there is no standardized format for ebook archival.
Unglue.it is a site that allows people to crowdfund the licensing fees that are required for books to dump digital rights management, or DRM for short. We wish DRM wasn't used on any digital publishing, but for now, Unglue.it looks like a promising tool.
Authors and Publishers: All of your written work could benefit from the Library License, a new set of legal terms that makes it easier for libraries to spread your word. You have the power to provide libraries with a better digital future.
Libraries are in a tough place right now – but with your help, we can ensure a prosperous future for them, no matter what form they happen to take.