University City Public Library is scheduled to close in July for much-needed renovations. There are plans to provide patrons access to materials, but I won’t be relaxing in the air-conditioned comfort of my favorite library this summer. This disquieting thought brought to mind three controversies currently swirling around public libraries.
The publisher Macmillan has established an embargo on its new ebooks: for the first two months after publication, a library can order only one copy, which means only two people can read it. Macmillan says it’s just doing as movie studios do, exhibiting films solely in theatres before making them available as DVDs. Publishers have always complained that theirs is the only industry that has to cope with competition from a public entity offering free use of the products they sell. As an author hoping to collect royalties, I have a certain amount of sympathy with this argument.
The American Library Association counters that books aren’t like other products; libraries increase reading and book purchasing. It also points out that publishers charge libraries much more than individuals for an ebook. Confident that the public is on its side, the ALA is appealing to Congress. It’s my guess that since other publishers are not following Macmillan’s lead, the embargo will eventually be dropped.
It’s interesting to note that a couple of decades ago, when many were predicting the demise of libraries, the ebook was chief among the innovations that were making them obsolete. People wouldn’t travel to a building for a paper product, they would get the text via their computers. But libraries haven’t vanished, and one publisher considers them tough competition in ebooks.
U City library and the St. Louis city and county systems have stopped charging overdue fines on most items, as have many other libraries across the country. The reason is social inequity. Fines are hardest on the poor, who can’t afford to pay them and end up losing borrowing privileges, and they’re the ones who need libraries most.
Critics counter that library books are community property, and it’s selfish or lazy not to return them on time. Fines provide an incentive to do the right thing. “Responsibility R.I.P.,” was Charlie Brennan’s terse criticism on Donnybrook. Boston Public Library found that it was owed $250,000 in late fees by under-18s. Critics may say that if we’re bringing up a generation to feel that they don’t have to return books unless or until they feel like it, the library won’t remain a viable institution. And Boston could use that money.
But it turns out that Boston was unable to collect. Staff at many libraries say they’re happy to see fines go because chasing down the money is time-consuming and unremunerative, as well as uncongenial.
When you get to the fine print, though, you find restrictions in the new policies. U City will continue to charge patrons for lost items. Chicago blocks patrons’ cards once they’ve held onto an item for a week too long. When the fuss settles down, I think we’ll find that libraries are not giving away their books.
I come down against the Macmillan embargo and in favor of lateness fines, but I can see reasonable arguments on both sides of these controversies. The third topic is simply a bad idea.
A Republican member of the Missouri House of Representatives, Ben Baker, told CNN that “I want to be able to take my kids to a library and make sure they’re in a safe environment,” so he wants libraries to lock up their adult material. My question for Rep. Baker is, if you see your kids with what you consider porn, why don’t you just take it away from them? Republicans are always talking about restricting the power of government — why do they want a public institution to co-parent their kids?
Baker’s proposed bill says that “any description or representation of nudity, sexuality, sexual conduct” that “appeals to minors” but “lacks literary value” should be locked up in an adults only section. Based on that description, about half of a library’s collection would have to be put under lock and key, starting with Cosmopolitan magazine.
The decisions would be made by a “parental library review board.” Just think about the kind of people who will volunteer to give up their evenings to sort through porno. History warns us that such boards are prone to mission creep. They move beyond porn to banning anything sexual that makes their members uncomfortable.
Take for instance “When Aidan Became a Brother,” a prizewinning recent children’s book about a transgender boy. Books like that would be at risk. Also note that this bill uses the word “minors,” meaning under 18, so a lot of young adult books would also get locked up. We could end up with a situation where some of the best young people’s books are unavailable to young people.