Response to K. G. Schneider’s (The Free Range Librarian) Post: Scilken’s Law and the Future of Libraries

Worthy read from the Free Range Librarian.  Schneider argues that … well, I’m not sure exactly what she’s arguing for.  She clearly is arguing against e-books, licensing as opposed to fair use, and any move toward shrinking physical collections.  In some respects I agree with her–it may be unlikely that public libraries will ever receive major funding for services other than book lending.  Then again, as books continue to decrease in importance relative to a the rest of the spectrum of the written word, let alone other forms of media, maybe society will shift to valuing net access more than access to books.   I certainly agree that electronic media publishers’ thus-far unchecked ability to license use and curtail fair use has onerous implications for libraries.  But again, that may change over time–the legality of their efforts is still unsettled.

I have two major counters to Schneider:

  1. She seems to assume that demand for physical books will continue unabated indefinitely, even in a climate where ebooks are widespread.  I think denizens of poor communities will want access to ebooks just as much as their wealthier neighbors.  Libraries job in these circumstances will be to provide access to ebooks, through loans of hardware and a collection of ebooks.  I don’t see how that’s fundamentally different from libraries’ current mission, nor why communities would be any less likely to fund such a mission.  We cannot precede  under the assumption that books will forever be the “normal” way of reading and ebooks the “alternative.”  As soon as the prices for ereaders come down to commodity level (which is right on the horizon), I think the perception will reverse more rapidly than many librarians seem ready to consider.
  2. Even if I set aside my objections, I still have to ask: What is the alternative?  Maybe I’m being unfair to Schneider, as I haven’t yet read through her other recent posts to see if see addresses this elsewhere, but what does “stopping the train in its tracks” and “fight the good fight” mean?  You can’t fight progress.  Libraries can futilely try to hold back the tide, they can try to keep their heads above water, or they can surf the wave.  I make this argument over and over again, but I’ll say it one more time: libraries can turn their backs on new media and cling to print, but if they do they’ll consign themselves to a fraction of their current user base.  They’ll become book museums.
    If Schneider is simply arguing that libraries need to fight for fair use of digital media, I’m on board with that.  But if she envisions a broader rejection of digital media because of the intrinsic value of books, then I’m strongly opposed.

2 comments to Response to K. G. Schneider’s (The Free Range Librarian) Post: Scilken’s Law and the Future of Libraries

  • “If Schneider is simply arguing that libraries need to fight for fair use of digital media, I’m on board with that. But if she envisions a broader rejection of digital media because of the intrinsic value of books, then I’m strongly opposed.”

    The former, not the latter.

    • Thanks for the reply. I’d be interested to hear if you have a response to my other points. Also, if we agree that fight must be fought, how do we begin? It seems to me that the legal question must be resolved before anything else will be settled.

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