Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: Libraries Not Dead Yet

My summary for 2010 was titled "Libraries are still screwed". And then in 2011, the ebook wars broke out. It was like "Attack of the Clones". Despite the collapse of the Border worlds in the face of the trade federation's robot armies, the Jedi Knights of the Reading Republic seemed to have the situation in hand. But when you see Senator Padmé Amidala, Representative of the people of Naboo, clasp Anakin's cold metallic mechno-hand, thinking they could live happily ever after, everyone in the theater is thinking "she is sooooo screwed."

It was September of 2011 that Amazon made a play for the affections of the library world, making a deal with Overdrive to make Kindles compatible with ebooks sold to libraries.  Somehow the library world was so flattered by the attention of this youthful, rebellious suitor that it failed to see the dark side of the force. Just two months later, Amazon introduced the Kindle Lending Library, demonstrating the too-inviting vitality of the lending business model for ebooks.  All of a sudden, getting an ebook from a library involved paying a tribute of personal information. People started wondering why we still needed libraries when Amazon would lend us books and Google was giving us everything else.

A more appropriate cinematic analogy for the library world in 2012 was Revenge of the Sith. The publisher trade federation, having thrown in with the Dark Lord of Cupertino, began to secede from the reading republic. Then it was Penguin, expressing anger over Amazon's dalliance with libraries by withdrawing from the Overdrive lending program. Random House took its turn soon after. While expressing deep love for libraries, it began to empty their pockets thrice for every ebook they would buy. Hachette piled on.

Many layers of ambiguity shrouded this conflict. Was Apple the leader of a trade federation conspiracy, or was it Amazon and the Department of Justice that had the republic's best interests at heart? Was the delegation from the senate a hopelessly naive and powerless waste of time, or did it contain the germ of a new hope?

Amazon almost crushed like a Federation transport on a clumsy Gungan, but it bounced back like a booma full of plasma.

Meanwhile, a pirate queen, E. L. James, slithered her way across the best-seller lists like a Hutt, leaving a trail of treasure for the dungeon-masters at Random.

In other corners of the internet, people were starting to speak of revolutions. From his cantina of independent writers and other odd characters, Mark Coker smashed words and landed unlikely books from worlds beyond the reach of the trade federation into the hands of everyday readers. And his quiet overtures to libraries may turn out to be seeds of a much greater rebellion.

Libraries themselves faced threats from all sides. In some cases, librarians were sacrificed before the  altar of apparent change, but most of the people saw them as bastions of hope in difficult times. Even when hundreds of thousands of website clamor for eyeballs, people still look to libraries for guidance and shelter. Though "reference" in public libraries is declining, overall library usage has actually increased. Maybe it's because so many bookstores have closed, and libraries remain a last refuge of the book lover. Maybe it's the free internet without the incessant Starbucks music. Maybe it's the author at the next table that nobody's ever heard of.

Meanwhile the flight away from printed books has slowed. I'll admit it- the last few books I've read have been books I last read in college, and I still have them. They're old friends with yellowed pages and a musty smell. Science fiction by Asimov and Niven, written decades before George Lucas ever had the nightmare of Jar Jar Binks.

And even the trade federation seemed to soften. Penguin returned to library lending with a new partner, 3M. Macmillan said that it too would begin a library lending program. And meetings with a delegation from ALA's Jedi Council seemed promising.

Jeff Bezos is not the Dark Lord and he's unlikely to issue Order 66 to his army of Kindles. The Random Penguin is not erecting an impenetrable ebook blockade around libraries. But the times ahead will see many more institutions fall into irrelevance and decay, and will see others find new and greater purposes. For 2013, we can't rely on high midi-chlorian counts or light sabers. We have to build up some new things. That Death Star isn't going away all by itself.
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