By My Pretty Metaphorical Bonnet

Quick: Some links to update you on the net neutrality front -

Now, on to another bee in my bonnet:

Amazon recently unveiled Kindle Unlimited, "a Netflix-style, all-you-can-read approach to more than 600,000 e-books" for $9.99/mo. It seems a ridiculous price to pay, given that you can get pretty much the same deal at any public library for free, given that it's a tax-supported, public service. But, no doubt, some people will pay for it because - I don't know, it's prettier? You can "keep" the books longer, and there are no limits to how many people can "check out" the ebook at any given time - artificial limitations that have been forced on libraries, unfortunately. I still don't know whether the price tag is worth the gain, though - especially when "none of the five biggest publishers appear to be making their books available through the service." Ouch.

It's not a new idea - Oyster and Scribd offer similar deals (and Scribd is a whole $1/mo. cheaper, and offers books by big publishers that Kindle Unlimited doesn't (at least for now) - but it must, of course, herald the end of libraries. Why not? Everything else does. (Libraries have been around for several thousand years, I think we'll be okay.)

But Amazon's new service prompted Forbes's Tim Worstall to suggest  that we should Close The Libraries And Buy Everyone An Amazon Kindle Unlimited Subscription. "More titles, easier access and quite possibly a saving of public funds. Why wouldn’t we simply junk the physical libraries and purchase an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription for the entire country?"

Well, he's in the U.K. and I'm in the U.S., but let's assume libraries function at least somewhat alike. And let's use the term "libraries" to mean public libraries, here. I think that's what he means - he surely isn't suggesting Kindle Unlimited replaces school, academic, law, medical, and business libraries. He believes Kindle Unlimited provides three things for its users that makes it better than libraries - 1) more titles, 2) easier access, and 3) a saving of public funds (at least, "quite possibly"). Okay, let's look at those, in that specific order.

  1. More titles! Sounds great! But there are libraries that carry more than 600,000 titles, especially when you combine ebooks, print books, magazines, articles offered on databases, movies, music, and so much, much more. Even those who don't house that vast amount of items can get you pretty much whatever you need through Inter-Library Loan. Because libraries are all about sharing, we share with other libraries - for you! I doubt Amazon can call up Scribd and say, "Hey, guys, we don't happen to have a particular Simon & Schuster book this lady wants - can we borrow yours for a while? Thanks!" So even small libraries tend to be better able to get you that particular book you want. But Amazon will be constantly adding more titles, and might convince the Big 5 to work with them, and might eventually catch up to library holdings (I don't see how, since a great number of books aren't digitized, and won't be in our lifetimes, but let's grant some miracle room), so let's move on...
  2. Easier access! I suppose, if you don't have a library card already and have a compatible device. You don't have to have a Kindle, necessarily, but you'd need a device that you can put apps on. Lots of people, um, don't have those. Or prefer print. Or have library cards. Because, if you have a library card, you can also sit at home with no pants on and download your ebook to your device. But let's assume we can overcome that - maybe it'll be deemed financially feasible to purchase a device and plan for everyone who can't afford their own, which leads us to the last point...
  3. It'll save us money! If you took all the library funding and used it to buy Kindle Unlimited plans for everyone, would money be saved? Well, maybe, if you assume that the library exists solely to provide you with ebooks. If, on the other hand, you consider what libraries actually provide, you're losing a lot of bang for your buck. Libraries provide ebooks, print books, magazines, movies, music, and other items, sure; they also provide reference services from highly trained information professionals, Internet access for those with no other connection, community classes free of charge, meeting rooms and private study spaces, emergency services in times of crises, support for parents teaching kids how to read and other information literacy skills, safe places for teens to learn about and express themselves, and much, much more. Libraries also adapt to meet their community needs, which is why you have some that provide seeds, and some that provide pots and pans. They offer space for community members to showcase their local talent. Kids can find a person who will focus just on them, and help them find the perfect books. Job seekers can come find help, as well as printers and copiers. If you need to learn English, we can help; if you need to study for the ACT, GRE, or a host of other tests, we can help; heck, if you need to just find a cool place to hang out when it's hotter than Hades outside, we've got you covered. And, yes, if a person comes up to me and asks about a book they once read that had a yellow cover - I will try to help. I've done it before, and found the book. Does Amazon's $9.99 guarantee all that? I don't think so.

So, no, I don't think it's wise to shut down public libraries just yet. Give it another thousand years or so; we can revisit the idea then.


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