From Library Babel Fish, August 9, 2010

Ever since I read an essay, “The Shock of Inclusion” by Clay Shirky in Edge, I’ve been pondering the implications of one of the stickiest concepts in the essay: he argues that publishing is the new literacy. He doesn’t mean that we need to add yet one more “literacy” to the list of things we’re supposed to teach, but rather that the internet’s ability to lower the boundaries between the published and the unpublished, between the mediated and the impulsive, between the specialized and the everyday, has makes publishing a very different cultural event. In a pre-literate Europe, scribes made a living putting the words of others into writing and books were for the few who could read. Today, anyone can publish anything, and in venues like this, the writer who kicks things off is not the only author. I pull things in from other writers (thanks, Clay!) and those who comment add to what I have started. (This, of course, happens whenever one reads or writes, but now it’s much more visible and immediate.)

But now I am also thinking about this new idea of literacy in light of the news that Camden, New Jersey, which opened its public library in 1905 with a grant from that old scoundrel Andrew Carnegie, faced closure last week in the wake of a 70 percent budget cut and now may be rescued by being adopted by the county system. Not long ago, it was Philadelphia’s libraries that were in the cross hairs and in Jackson County, Oregon 15 libraries had their doors locked for six months in 2007 when the county manager said there was no money to keep them open and voters rejected a tax increase. (They reopened with reduced service and their management outsourced to a for-profit company based in Maryland.)

Earlier this summer, Fox News in several cities, including Chicago, ran exposes on how much libraries cost tax payers. “They eat up millions of your hard earned tax dollars. It’s money that could be used to keep your child’s school running. So with the internet and e-books, do we really need millions for libraries?” A camera crew entered the Harold Washington Center downtown and filmed books that were not being read to illustrate the appalling waste.

Commissioner Mary Dempsey’s letter in response is a model of evidence-based reasoning. Not only are Chicagoans using the libraries (and their books) quite heavily, but citizens who can’t afford monthly bills for Internet service or computers rely on public libraries so they can apply for jobs and fill out government forms that can only be submitted online. A map Tim Spalding created using LibraryThing Venues demonstrates, too, that libraries are distributed throughout the city regardless of income levels; bookstores don’t do that. As for libraries and ebooks, there’s an important synergy there not well understood by publishers who think sharing is a bug, not a feature; even so, public libraries are finding ways (at a significant cost and without violating copyright laws) to loan ebooks, and in large numbers.

Public libraries tend to have a lot of local support, emotional if not always financial – far more than one might expect of an institution that might be viewed warily as an elitist institution that competes with the private sector, run by professionals whose knee-jerk devotion to in privacy led one unnamed FBI agent to call them “radical militants.” What if the public library movement were launched today? I’m afraid it would be a political non-starter. Though Dennis Baron once joked that nobody complains about “socialized literacy,” using public funds to offer free public access to books and the Internet would be a tough sell today.

When Al Franken recently made claims that net neutrality was critical for free speech, a number of comments claimed net neutrality was, in fact, an attempted government takeover of the Internet. One commenter speculated that this was an effort to “socialize free speech.” I don’t think he was joking.

The more the Internet enables sharing across borders, both geographic and ideological, the more there seems to be an impulse to throw up barriers with digital rights management, copyright extensions, and the substitution of licensing for ownership. Traditional library values and functions – to serve all people regardless of their ability to pay, to preserve culture, to provide information on multiple points of view, to resist censorship, to defend all people’s right to inquire and to read in privacy without fear of being judged by association with what we read – that’s all up for grabs. Now that texts can be altered at the flick of a switch and what we read is monitored for money (just read the alarming series in the Wall Street Journal for the details of how that’s done) we need the values embodied in libraries more than ever. When inclusion and mass participation is matched with behind-the-scenes profiteering and tiered or tethered access, it’s hard to know how inclusive this brave new world will really prove to be.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse Copyright © 2015 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.