What if Libraries Didn’t Exist?

Over at Freakonomics (excellent book, BTW), Stephen J. Dubner asks that musical, magical question: “If public libraries didn’t exist, would it be possible to create them in today’s market?”

Dubner theorizes that today’s lockjaw-like grip on intellectual property rights would make it difficult for a free lending system like the one we’ve come to know and love to develop. Publishers (and authors, probably) would balk at the idea of selling a single copy of their work, only to have it loaned out ad infinitum. (Well, OK — not ad infinitum. But I don’t know the Latin for “a whole hell of a lot.”)

Dubner does allow that some sort of system would rise up — possibly revolving around a licensing fee — but it wouldn’t be the one we’re all used to. I wonder if we would evolve a system similar to that in the UK, whereby authors are paid a royalty each time their books circulate to a new library patron.

I’ve never known an author to extol the opinion that libraries are bad for business, but I have overheard such conversations. Fortunately, every single author I know is a huge fan and big booster of our public libraries. Dubner very even-handedly lays out reasons why authors and publishers shouldn’t like libraries, but also lists reasons why we should.

But he forgets one important one: Libraries are archives. They are repositories of knowledge, culture, and art. Authors should be honored to have their books on the shelves of public libraries. It is one more indication that the culture respects our work. And, perhaps more importantly, it says that we have made some contribution to the betterment of our society through the practice of our art.

In short: It ain’t all about money.

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