Here in Iowa City, the libraries are in pretty good shape. Iowa City Public Library is one of my favorite places to hang out, and has in fact been the oasis from which I’ve written several of these blog posts. The building is open, artistic, with a great selection. The huge windows have a lovely view of the pedestrian mall outside, which itself is full of yarn-bombed trees. Great place to sit and write.
Given my target demographic, I don’t think I really need to sell the idea of whole buildings full of books to you, but here’s the thing: back where I’m from, libraries aren’t in such a good shape.
Example: back in 2013, Fairfax County threw out thousands of perfectly good books. The current director, Sam Clay, has been cutting funding for the libraries for years, and steadily culling the actual selection. And all this despite the fact that people still love paper books, and overall library usage went up in 2014.
I’m writing this blog post because I want to dispel a few things I’ve heard floating around.
“Nobody reads anymore.”
On the contrary, we read more than we ever have. Ever. My generation gets crap for its addiction to texting, but the side effect is that we are constantly steeped in the written word. We’re addicted to it. Even chatspeak, once the refuge of the young, the lazy, or the less-literate of the Internet, has become somewhat standardized: hell, some forums are actually sticklers about grammar. The phrase “grammar nazi” exists for a reason.
Illiteracy is no longer just an academic problem. It’s a social problem. And people are a lot more likely to work at something for social reasons than education. It’s sad, but it’s working to our advantage right now.
“I mean, nobody reads books.”
Yes, the amount of books that the average American reads has fallen since the 70s; but then again, a lot of the utilitarian uses of books have been re-relegated to the Internet. I’m not likely to pick up a book on “how to crochet” if I can google it, after all. (Although my nonfiction collection is pretty extensive: googling “learn Russian” doesn’t give as good information as my copy of Russian for Beginners.) My background in the social sciences leads me to believe that this is one of a few other underlying causes for the decline in books read per year.
Mostly because there’s a lot of social evidence that young people are reading, and they’re reading a lot.
My main proof: over the past 10 years the “young adult” genre has exploded. Harry Potter is the first one I can remember, but think back to the most recent blockbusters: The Hunger Games. Divergent. My generation (the texting generation) grew up absolutely flooded with books. Reading in young adults and children has been increasing since the 90’s– and that’s not exactly coming from the highest numbers. I mentioned in a previous article that kids have a hard time finding books they like: this may seem to contradict that, but I feel it adds to my point.
Kids like reading. When they have stuff they like to read, they read a lot. Millennials are proof of that. Compounded with the explosion of “geek culture”, which idolizes both intelligence and creativity, I don’t think book lovers have much to worry about.
“Okay, but what does this have to do with libraries?”
In this light, it makes so little sense to me that my home city has such issue with books. It’s more of a frustration than anything else: all the big bookstores in the area keep closing down, the libraries are slowly being choked to death by a solitary assbutt, and people seem so obsessed with progress that they’re holding themselves back.
I’ve written before that we’re on the cusp of something entirely new, and I love it. The Information Age has so much promise, and I consider myself lucky to be a part of the journey. But jumping head-first into a new technology with no regard for the past is how we’ve ended up with stuff like SOPA and the whole DRM wars. And books are not exempt.
Publishers give libraries a really shitty time when it comes to ebooks. Libraries have to pay insane amounts for digital copies of a book, and even then are frequently limited to a certain number of copies to lend. And that could make sense, except that it’s a concrete number: it’s not that they’re only allowed to lend out, say, ten copies of a book at a time. They’re often only allowed to lend out ten copies. Period. And then they have to pay for more.
The fact that libraries have allowed free access to copyrighted material for years has no bearing on this.
My point is this.
We still read. We still pay money for things. We still like paying a little money for a lot, but we’re willing to pay for things we actually like. Strong-arming people into huge profit margins has never worked in the long term.
Technology has changed. People haven’t. More people should remember that.