On The Death Of Library Browsing

Published: Tue 2 Apr 2024 04:28 PM
Wellington Library
For many of us, the word “library” has comfortable connotations. It suggests rows of books in which to browse, make discoveries and pass then on to friends and family. Beyond being a resource centre for culture and practical information, a typical library is also a community meeting ground and a safe drop-in space for kids after school. It is also one of the relatively few public destinations in town where people don’t have to spend money.
At present, the content and function of libraries – and the funding for them - are in flux. Those on higher incomes don’t need or use libraries as much. Increasingly, libraries are being under-funded and seen as unnecessary in the digital age. With good reason, many people are worried that the library space devoted to books is shrinking, the ability to browse is vanishing, and the social and communal value of libraries is being ignored. The tactile and sensory pleasures of books – the feel, the smell! – is also being lost. Regardless, the reality is that the digital library is fast displacing the analogue book-centred library.
The current mayor of Christchurch Phil Mauger, seems resigned to the fact. Small community libraries, he said recently, were just a “building with some books in.. People can always get on public transport and go to the really good libraries if they want to.”
Not much room in Mauger’s vision for the library as a community gathering point, or for the magic that “a building with books in it” can still convey, especially to children. Around the country, local government is assuming that money can be saved on libraries by closing branches, laying off librarians, and embracing the digital transition. Along the way, book collections are being junked and shrunk, and library services cut.
At the same time, this process of budgetary rigour and strict cost/benefit analysis is spectacularly not being applied to sports stadiums and to convention centres, even though those buildings impose lasting debt burdens. Debt burdens that can only be met by rates increases, asset sales and cuts to the kind of services that benefit whole communities, and not simply a thin layer of hoteliers, restauranteurs and retailers.
For reasons set out below, the hopes for making savings on libraries via digitalisation may be mis-founded.The Wellington Central Library Saga
Wellington is currently going through the analogue to digital transition. Its much loved (a million users annually at last count) library, is not due to re-open until 2026, after extensive and costly earthquake strengthening. A recent Council message to nearby residents confirmed that the refit in proceeding on course :
One of the key areas that progressed in early 2024 weas the creation of a seismic gap on Victoria St called a rattle zone. The rattle zone is effectively a trench around the building, and because the building is separated from the ground by its base isolaters and sliders, in the event of an earthquake it can move into this space. The rattle zone is due for completion in early 2025. Within the building, the next phase will see levels three and four extended to create a larger floor area, and the installation of structural frames for the mezzanine extension...
In the meantime, the bulk of the library collection remains locked up in Johnsonville, with limited public access. Small pop-up libraries with very sparse shelf offerings have provided an interim service ever since the Central Library was closed in March 2019 for the refit.
When it does re-open, all the signs indicate that the Central Library will not be the same beast. As the Council has also made clear, additional entities and functions are being packed into the building. At last count, two floors will be devoted to the NZ Music School, and the Capital E centre, the City Archives and the Customer Service Centre will also be housed within the Central Library building.
How much space this will leave over to house the former book collection remains to be seen – but logically, there is every likelihood that the shelf space for books after the refit will be only a shadow of the previous content. The space for libraries to fulfil some of their other traditional functions – as a communal space, and as a venue in which to hold classes and public meetings - is also likely to be squeezed to extinction.What’s a Library?
In the Wellington case, the notion of a library as an archive and repository that can be depended on to provide ready access to popular and less popular cultural works alike, to historical materials and to official information also seems to be at risk. Use will determine retention. While this is inevitable up to a point, extensive culling of the less used items will also shrink the library’s depth of content, and its breadth of purpose.
Arguably, any move to require a library to reduce its role within the community, and to sacrifice a significant amount of its holdings is an exercise in false economics. Before getting into the details, some obvious points :
1.Digitalisation can have positive aspects. People living in remote, rural parts of the country, and the less mobile elderly and disabled all stand to benefit from enhanced digital access – provided, of course, they can afford the necessary technology and also possess the know-how required to negotiate access to the online system. Some of the elderkly, and some people on lower incomes may not be able to surmount those hurdles.
2.There has always been a three way tension between publishers, authors and libraries over the terms of use and the level of remuneration for public access. Again, the assumption that digitalisation will improve ease of access may prove true only for those able to pay the fee-for-use and able to afford the equipment (e-readers etc) necessary to play back the digital copy.
It is not only the elderly who may miss out. Students may also find the new, digital library is available only to those who own their own playback equipment, or who can gainb access to the limited extent of publicly provided technology. As the late Waikato University academic and computer scientist Ian Witten wrote several years ago:
These new directions present our society with puzzling challenges, [but] one thing is certain: they will surely increase the degree of disenfranchisement of those who do not have access to the technology.
3. The jury is still out on the terms that libraries may have imposed on them in future by the evolution of copyright law in the digital library realm. So far, the use of e-readers (Kindle or Kobo?) has been promoted, to eventually enable similar forms of monetisation and control over reading material that have already been imposed on television and film access by the commercial streaming services. Witten again:
Basic rights that we take for granted (and are legally enshrined in the concept of copyright)—such as the ability to lend a book to a friend, resell it on the second-hand market, keep it indefinitely, continue to use it when your e-book reader breaks down, donate it to charity, preserve it for your grandchildren, copy excerpts without resorting to a handwritten transcription—are in jeopardy...
Digital copyright laws – which, as mentioned, are still evolving – will make it possible for public access to reading material to be controlled, monitored, withdrawn and (ultimately) criminalised if the access fees and conditions are not met. In the end, Wellingtonians may end up footing the bill for a $200 million plus refit that will deliver them more restricted access to a smaller residue of the book collection they paid for in years gone by.
They are also likely to find library access a more expensive process in future, if only because of the necessary personal investment in digital technology - and also because of the more expensive conditions that libraries risk facing for their access to published works. This battle is currently being fought out in the American courts. (The key case is called Hachette v Internet Archive.)
Depending on how this case is finally resolved, councils that throw in their lot with digital libraries may be either landing library users with additional user pays charges and/or paying as much (or more) to fund libraries adequately for their provision of digital content and playback systems. One wonders how much the Wellington Council is envisaging it will need to set aside annually for the installation, upkeep and ongoing modernisation of the in-house tech gear (screens, e-readers, computers etc) required to ensure anything like equal access to its electronic holdings by library users on low and middle incomes.
Rather than replicate that costly capacity in neighbourhood libraries, the electronic transition is likely to mean library services will become more and more centralised, and thus more reliant on the existence of affordable public transport. In sum, the notion that a digital library will be more accessible and cheaper to run than a book-centred library is something of a mirage.The Hachette v Internet Archive case
As mentioned, this is shaping to be a landmark case for libraries, and for library users. The Internet Archive (IA) is a US based non-profit digital library that reportedly contains about 40 million texts. It aims to make knowledge accessible to everyone, including to students and scholars. In 2022, it claimed to have been lending items to 70 million users worldwide, per day. The IA has been sued by four of America’s biggest publishers ( Harper Collins, Random House, Penguin and Wiley). The IA lost at district court level in New York in March 2023, and has since lodged an appeal to a higher court.
Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, called the March 2023 ruling “a blow to libraries, readers, and authors.” Conversely, the Authors Guild has hailed the ruling as a victory for authors – although a considerable number of individual authors ( including Naomi Klein and Neil Gaiman) have signed a letter of support for the IA. As described by Kahle in this useful article in the Jacobin magazine, the Internet Archive’s practice sseem very similar to that of more conventional libraries:
All the books we offer are older than five years. And we have in our storage a physical copy of everything we offer digitally.These books are lent through “controlled digital lending,” which means that the books offered by the Internet Archive will only be read by one reader at a time. During the pandemic, the archive broke this rule: under the name of “The National Emergency Library,” the books could be temporarily borrowed by several people at the same time. It only lasted ten weeks, but it was used by students worldwide. And they were instantly sued by the four publishers.
What is at issue is the “fair use”copyright law which - the IA contended - did allow it to buy a book from libraries, retain that copy, scan it, and then lend this digital version to one reader at a time. In his March 2023 ruling, the district court judge claimed that the “I.A. profits from exploiting the copyrighted material without paying the customary price.”
“We do pay for the books,” Kahle explained. “We buy these books from libraries that bought them at full price, and then we digitize them. And we keep the physical book, we make the digital book available for one person at a time. We would much rather do this with e-books! But these publishers don’t want to sell e-books. They prefer to sell licenses.”
Indeed, e-book licenses are the path preferred by the publishers and by the US Authors Guild. The renting of digital books offers the prospect of a more lucrative income stream, since the end users – libraries and readers– can be levied for higher licence fees set by copyright owners, for books that they can rent, but not own. Along the way, their personal data ( as e-book renters) can also be accessed and managed by publishers – or by some hard-pressed libraries - for potential economic gain. Kahle again:
When you buy an e-book on Amazon, you don’t buy it. There is a long text that you don’t read when you get the book. The publisher has the right to change or delete the books on your device at any time. Take Roald Dahl. The publishers change the books, and boom, they’ve all changed. All libraries with this book immediately have the latest edition of the book. Because they never owned the book. That’s creepy. Libraries in the American electronic world do not own old editions. They have, they rent, a mutating thing. They really only have the right to send their members to the publishers’ servers.”
In addition, there are the privacy concerns mentioned above :
There is no privacy . . . everything goes into the publishers’ databases. And the smaller independent publishers don’t have their own distribution mechanisms. The big publishers make the platforms. We complain about the Twitters and Facebooks and Googles and Apples, and yes, they have too much power. But these big publishers have much more power, and they have power over those who write.
Writers struggling to get by are quite susceptible to any perceived threat to their (often minimal) income streams. There have been claims that lending by the IA or by other digital libraries will negatively affect authors by limiting the sales of their books. Arguably, the reverse is more likely. As with traditional book-centred libraries, digital lending can boost author recognition and the sales of books to readers who may then want to purchase a copy of a treasured book, or seek out the rest of a writer’s oeuvre.
In sum, the licensing deals for e-books place vast power in the hands of a relatively small group of publishers, one of whom – Harper Collins – is owned by Rupert Murdoch. Moreover :
Expensive licensing deals, the proposal put forward by representatives of the Big Four publishers, mean that libraries will have to offer fewer e-books to their readers, which in turn means fewer readers, which is not benefiting authors. Finally, the licensing structures are a vehicle for censoring and retracting books. In 2022, Wiley withdrew thirteen hundred academic e-books from libraries right at the beginning of the academic year, forcing students to buy the expensive books they needed for their studies.
As the city of Wellington awaits the re-opening of what is likely to be only a boutique version of its former Central Library in two years time, Wellingtonians may be wanting to rethink their embrace of a digitised lending model for their library that will risk exposing them to considerable social, cultural and financial costs.
Footnote One: The assumption that a digital library will reduce labour costs will also come at a social cost. Skilled librarians, as Ian Witten noted, also provide research assistance, guidance, book recommendations, and tools to help people empower themselves when it comes to researching and locating information. Losing that expertise by giving everyone a Kindle would be, in practice, something of a dumbing down exercise.
Footnote Two: For those who wish to explore the Hachette v Internet Archive case in greater depth, the opening brief of the Internet Archive case to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals is available here. Here’s a key passage :
Publishers claim this public service is actually copyright infringement. They ask this Court to elevate form over substance by drawing an artificial line between physical lending and controlled digital lending. But the two are substantively the same, and both serve copyright’s purposes. Traditionally, libraries own print books and can lend each copy to one person at a time, enabling many people to read the same book in succession. Through interlibrary loans, libraries also share books with other libraries’ patrons. Everyone agrees these practices are not copyright infringement.
Controlled digital lending applies the same principles, while creating new means to support education, research, and cultural participation. Under this approach, a library that owns a print book can scan it and lend the digital copy instead of the physical one. Crucially, a library can loan at any one time only the number of print copies it owns, using technological safeguards to prevent copying, restrict access, and limit the length of loan periods.
Lending within these limits aligns digital lending with traditional library lending and fundamentally distinguishes it from simply scanning books and uploading them for anyone to read or redistribute at will. Controlled digital lending serves libraries’ mission of supporting research and education by preserving and enabling access to a digital record of books precisely as they exist in print. And it serves the public by enabling better and more efficient access to library books, e.g., for rural residents with distant libraries, for elderly people and others with mobility or transportation limitations, and for people with disabilities that make holding or reading print books difficult. At the same time, because controlled digital lending is limited by the same principles inherent in traditional lending, its impact on authors and publishers is no different from what they have experienced for as long as libraries have existed.
Footnote Three: Humanity has been here before, long ago. The Great Library of Alexandria of antiquity had been based on the dual premise of offering a public gathering space, and of providing public access to its vast contents to scholars from many countries, as well as to interested members of the public. It survived various lootings and burnings – intentional and accidental – but what did it in finally was a very modern problem : budget cuts.The Books of Love
A few examples of love songs, and books...First the Magnetic Fields, and the irony-steeped baritone of Stephin Merritt:
Merritt was riffing of course, on this 1950s oldie by the Monotones :
Finally, as David Byrne says in this early Talking Heads song, the book I read was in your eyes...

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