Find an update to this blog debate at Popcorn Complacency: Supporting Readers and Writers at Australia’s Margins, on this site.
Today on the blog I’m joined by writer, web developer, and Australian creative-man-about-town Connor Tomas O’Brien plus Kiwi open source advocate (and fellow developer) Chris Cormack of Koha.
Connor is the director of the EWF Digital Writers’ Festival. He came to my attention after a Twitter conversation which led to his article “A very quiet battle” for the journal Kill Your Darlings. In it, he addressed sci-fi author Ursula Le Guin’s argument that publishers are deliberately making it untenable for public libraries to loan e-books to their patrons.
“That’s probably true, and actually not very surprising,” Connor replied, suggesting that “ebooks and public libraries fundamentally just don’t mix”:
After all, if we accept that one of the core roles of the public library system is to make work freely available, and to make that work as convenient as possible to access… well, it’s already extremely easy to acquire ebooks freely and easily online without paying a cent. If we ignore the copyright implications, the torrenting website The Pirate Bay is, in a sense, like a modern day Library of Alexandria […D]igital lending systems are so complex, restrictive, and counterintuitive that it’s far more convenient for somebody with a limited income to pirate an ebook than rent it from their public library. The Pirate Bay, though illicit, offers a superior system of unrestricted free digital access to written work than any public library in existence. (For reference, here’s a breakdown of a typical library’s ebook checkout restrictions).
It’s hard to see things improving. Public libraries were established to facilitate the distribution of physical objects, not digital files. The conceptual framework for lending – involving one patron visiting a physical space, removing a book from the collection for a limited period, then returning it for others to enjoy – breaks down when it comes to ebooks, which can be accessed anywhere and endlessly duplicated.
Connor acknowledged that “The public library […] is nowhere near obsolete. In some cases, it’s more important than ever”, but without giving examples of what he expected the library to do in this brave new world. And when he signed off the article like this:
For now, there’s not much to do, really, but grab the popcorn and sit back and watch as publishers and librarians battle it out (very, very quietly, of course).
Well, of course this got my dander up. I was minded of Edward Burke’s “All that is necessary for the triumph of Evil is that good men do nothing.” If people complacently munch popcorn while public libraries ail and the smallest, most disadvantaged communities lose their free point of access to human knowledge and culture, they’re actually helping a deeper slide into inequality across the nation.
So I got in touch with Connor and asked him to talk through his ideas about the future of public libraries – and to bolster my limited technical knowledge, I talked also with Chris Cormack of Koha, an open-source software developer who spoke at this year’s Auckland Libraries Youth Hui. I won’t deny I’ve got a soft spot for Chris ever since I found out he arranged for the Māori hero Maui to attend his son’s birthday party – the kind of parenting that chimes so well with the spirit of playful learning.
The following interview comes from stitching together e-mail discussions with Connor and Chris. Connor ran out of time because of his work with the Digital Writers’ Festival, but I hope interested readers will be able to pursue the issue further online – you can find Connor online as @mrconnorobrien and Chris as @ranginui.
After reading Connor’s article, I asked him: “Aren’t the systems around e-book lending only so complex because publishers are trying to enforce unenforceable, outdated business systems? It’s so easy to publish an ebook now: aren’t publishers trying to create an artificial scarcity, because the traditional business model was based on scarcity of the physical text? I’ve heard it argued that libraries should directly value and reward authors for the work that they do, rather than the distributors who might be increasingly irrelevant. Rather than the problem being libraries, isn’t the problem a publishing business model which places intrinsic value not on the work, but on its transmission?”