Why I Love Librarians, and Publishers Should, Too

Day 123 - Keep it down, dammit! Or wait... by margolove
Day 123 – Keep it down, dammit! Or wait… by margolove

“HarperCollins says it is working to protect its authors, but I wasn’t consulted and I had to read about this on Library Journal and on the blogs and tweets of my librarian sources. This isn’t what I want, e-books with evaporating powers! Are you kidding?”

The 27th Patron, Marilyn Johnson [dead link]

My first real job as a teenager was as a Page at the Mt. Vernon Public Library in Mt. Vernon, NY. It was via their shelves that I discovered and devoured novels by Stephen King and Ian Fleming; explored Section 133 (Parapsychology & occultism); was first exposed to the variety of magazines that existed beyond the limited selection at the local candy store; and realized the important role a library can play in a working-class community.

It’s fair to say that working there lit the spark that would, years later, find me working in the publishing industry.

So it’s probably not surprising that I was disturbed and disappointed by the announcement of HarperCollins’ new library ebook policy last week that has caused quite an uproar. Check out Bobbi L. Newman’s comprehensive post, “Publishing Industry Forces OverDrive and Other Library eBook Vendors to Take a Giant Step Back,” for the whole story, including an amazing variety of links to other posts and articles, many from other extremely thoughtful librarians.

I’ve been watching it unfold from the sidelines, impressed and fascinated by the intensity of the passion, the intelligent insights and alternatives being offered, and the rapid move to seize the opportunity to turn this moment into a starting point, not an end. Honestly, it’s been a welcome change from the frustratingly short-sighted and repetitive ebook debates that the publishing industry itself typically focuses on.

In fact, the amount of intense attention the situation has received in such a short period of time, from tweets to blogs to proposed (and ill-advised, IMO*) boycotts, makes HarperCollins’ claim to have “had discussions with librarians” prior to making their decision highly suspect. As quoted above, Marilyn Johnson has noted that she wasn’t consulted, despite being the author of the excellent This Book Is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, WHICH WAS PUBLISHED BY HARPER JUST LAST YEAR!

While impressed by the overwhelming response from librarians, I’m not the least bit surprised, as they are the patron saints of equal access to knowledge, dedicated to closing the information divide, one that’s grown increasingly wider in the digital realm with every new technological “advancement.”

I finally read Johnson’s This Book is Overdue! last month, after initially being inspired last Spring by her panel at the inaugural Empire State Book Festival, where she invited three of the librarians featured in the book to come tell their own stories: Kathryn Shaughnessy, Peter Chase, and David Smith.

“Librarianship doesn’t change because of technology,” declared Shaughnessy. “It’s still about connecting people with information and each other.”

Smith has been called the “Librarian to the Stars,” and during his years at the New York Public Library, he connected many notable writers with the research they were looking for, along with each other.

Chase was a member of the “Connecticut Four,” a quartet of librarians who sued US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in 2005 over a gag order related to National Security Letters that allowed the FBI to violate library patrons’ privacy. “Over 200,000 Americans are under gag order via National Security Letters,” he noted. “Only 5 have ever been released from those orders; all five are librarians.”

The Future of the Book Might be in Librarians’ Hands,” Publishers Weekly

In You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier writes about the dangers of lock-in, noting that it “removes ideas that do not fit into the winning digital representation scheme [and] reduces or narrows the ideas it immortalizes.” He also asks a critical question, focused on how the Internet is evolving and its effect on musicians, but applicable to all forms of digital content, including books: “Are we building the digital utopia for people or machines?”

Libraries are in communities of every size and are located in neighborhoods where there are no bookstores, because librarians know that readers are tenacious and can grow in thin soil. Not only will libraries buy books for every reader, those readers become book buyers. Publishers seem to be ignorant of these facts.

A Library Written in Disappearing Ink,” Barbara Fister

I find it somewhat ironic that, at the same time publishers are scrambling to fill ill-advised budget gaps left by their blind co-dependence on Borders, HarperCollins decides to play hardball with the one channel that offers the maximum combination of discoverability and non-returnability.

Sarah Houghton-Jan, the Assistant Director for the San Rafael Public Library, arguably said it best in calling for a revolution: “Unless we take a firm stand we will not be heard.”

Librarians are the last line of defense from the kind of lock-in that would only widen the digital divide even further, and as the Connecticut Four stood up to the government itself despite overwhelming odds, I trust they will rise to the occasion in this latest challenge and fight for what’s right, and I’m looking for ways that I can support their efforts, both locally and nationally.

The question for publishers isn’t so much, “Are you listening?” — there’s no hope for those who aren’t — as it is, “What do you stand for?

*UPDATE: My discomfort is with an all-out boycott of HarperCollins’ books, print and digital. I think Andy Woodworth is on the right track with his call to focus on ebooks, and his post, “Now What? We Do This” is a must-read.

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3 thoughts on “Why I Love Librarians, and Publishers Should, Too

  1. Great post! I am a librarian, and my director and I were discussing the HarperCollins situation just yesterday. Both of us were saying: don’t the people at HarperCollins realize that, after borrowing books, readers will go and buy other books by a beloved author? Don’t they realize that it’s libraries keeping their midlist afloat? Not to speak of all the classics which both public and school libraries purchase over and over again! I’m retweeting this article.

    1. I’m hoping the powers that be at HarperCollins see — or have forwarded to them — the passionate responses to #HCOD as invaluable feedback that leads to a real discussion with librarians and vendors to figure out a better model. As it is, the current model feels very much like something that came out of an executive meeting that didn’t include anyone with actual relationships to libraries. Or worse, that person was just ignored.

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, and thank you for being a librarian!

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