Today, the disturbing news that is going around is that some publishers have asked Overdrive (the library lending program) to limit the number of checkouts for a digital lending license.
Look, I get that money is tight. I get that you’re worried about an infinite number of checkouts from one digital copy. I get that you’re projecting the future and it’s filled with fear. What I don’t get, however, is the utter disdain for the vital role that libraries fill in our community, and in the book-buying ecosystem.
So let’s talk about the lifecycle of a voracious reader: me.
I enjoyed reading from a very young age. I started forming lifelong habits at the age of ten, and continued through my twenties. It quickly became apparent that the sources of books available to me were vastly, vastly inadequate. My parents didn’t have a lot of discretionary income (having opted for discretionary children instead). We had a lot of books in the house, but a house that has 1,000 books in it is nothing–you finish most of those 1,000 books by the time you are 9 or 10, and that’s including the hours you spend struggling through “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” because damn, there really isn’t anything else to read.
We got most of our additional reading through the library. We would go every week during the summer, and we’d each check out the maximum number of books. (Which I think was three or four). I would finish my own books on the first day of the week, and then swap with my sister. By the end of the week, we were all slavering, waiting for my little brother to finish his latest Hardy Boys book.
When I went away to college, I had to bend over backwards to keep my fiction reading up. I read everything I could find in the library. I borrowed from friends. On occasion, when I couldn’t bear to wait on the library waiting list for a new release, I would take the money for the book I wanted from my food budget–but since I was spending $15 a week on food, this was not always an option. Back then, I was willing to jump through the most enormous hoops to get books for free: begging, borrowing from people I barely knew, waiting for weeks on the library waiting list. I was more than willing to trade free time (which I had in spades) for books.
Since that time, my discretionary income has increased substantially, and my free time has decreased accordingly.
When I was young, and forming habits, and had no money, I could get free books. If I had not been able to get free books, I would have eventually found other ways to pass my time. Video games, role playing, television… you name it, there are a ton of other free or near-free habits I could, and would, have developed.
Today, library budgets are being slashed. Some publishers don’t make their books available for digital lending, and more publishers are actively hostile.
But let’s face the truth: libraries are an annoying way to get books. You have to wait. You have to read the book on someone else’s schedule–when you hit your spot–and you only have two weeks to read it before it’s ripped from your grasp, and later on, when you can’t remember the title or the author you can’t scour your shelves in vain.
A lend from a library is never as good as a purchase. People do it because they are readers, and they put up with it because it is really, really expensive to support a flat-out voracious reading habit on your own dime.
Publishers, if you make it impossible for young people–those in the “under 25” category–to support a good reading habit on their own dime, these people are not going to start magically spending money on books when they start making a decent income. No; at that point, they’ll already have started spending their time haunting hulu instead, where they can actually get free entertainment. And when they start making money, they’ll be buying iTunes streams of those shows they watched for free.
Me, personally, I’d rather they were buying books.
When I was 20, I spent maybe $50 a year on books. Libraries subsidized my reading for 10 years of my life. But once I started having a reasonable income, the tables turned. I imagine that I’ll be spending over $5,000 a year on books–what I spent last year–every year for the rest of my life.
Libraries are the future of reading. When the economy is down, we need to make it easier for people to buy and read books for free, not harder. It is stupid to sacrifice tomorrow’s book buyers for today’s dollars, especially when it’s obvious that the source in question doesn’t have any more dollars to give you.