Young Bill Young here. Kitty’s been a bit under the weather, but she’s back. To help her catch-up (a sick day can be costly work wise!), I volunteered to helm the blog today.
To start off, you need to follow the link below to see the latest Webcomic Wednesday on Sadie’s extremely cool Extremely Graphic blog. Go check it out (add your comment, if you wish) and then meet me back here. K?
Are you back? Good!
What was *that* all about?! Is the Hi and Lois comic strip saying more people are using their libraries because the lousy economy is shuttering book stores? Or is it saying “free” library service is helping put bookstores out of business? (“Everything has a cost,” Lois tells her two tykes.) This comic seems so wrong in so many ways it’s hard to get my head around it. The comic may simply be a commentary on the current economic crisis, but if it is, it fails. Instead, it comes across as anti-library and anti-egalitarian.
More than anything, it makes me think about a conversation overhead at the Oklahoma State Capitol a few years ago. The gist of the conversation was that libraries hurt publishers and authors because fewer people buy books.
Libraries are bad for the economy? Bad for the book publishing business? Let’s look at a couple of facts:
• According to the 2009 Library and Book Trade Almanac (formerly Bowker’s Annual), public, academic, special and government libraries in the United States bought more than $400 million dollars worth of books during fiscal year 2007-2008. (And that figure doesn’t even include school libraries.) These libraries spent approximately $1.9 billion on all acquisitions, including magazine subscriptions, online resources, AV materials and other print resources. The truth is, libraries are a major customer for publishers and authors, and they remain champions of traditional print, even as they branch out to offer new formats and information technologies to citizens.
• Meanwhile, the Association of American Publishers estimates that U.S. publishers had net sales of $23.9 billion in 2009. Looking at it this way, it appears library sales are just a drop in the bucket. Sales to individuals and other types of institutions represent more than 98% of total book sales. (See how much fun you can have with statistics?)
And while we’re talking the economy, let’s not forget how often people use their library to hunt for jobs, fill-out online job applications, or to find information for their business or to start a new business.
More egregious is the idea that libraries are “free”, as the Hi and Lois comic strip suggests. Libraries are not free. They are paid for with tax dollars to provide a service for the common good. And this common good is best represented by this quote from James Madison:
A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
Libraries are there to provide citizens this popular information when they can’t afford to buy a book or a newspaper subscription, or can’t afford home internet access. And they have librarians to help when they don’t know where to start looking for particular information. For all of this, libraries are among the most beloved of American institutions. And for all of this, we get a lame cartoon like this one.
In many ways, libraries are a radical institution to support a radial idea: namely that the common person can be in charge of his own destiny, that she can participate in government, and that the path toward this self-determination lies in access to information and knowledge. How many citizens would be left out of our participatory democracy if the open, non-judgmental, only-here-to-serve library was taken out of the equation? There would be a real cost to that scenario, and it’s a cost we simply cannot afford.