A librarian walks us through all the virtual offerings, and explains why we have to queue for ebooks.
Hardly a surprise, but I love public libraries. They exemplify the best of social democracy by providing free resources, services and advice for all members of a community – we have no choice but to stan. Libraries are open to everyone, with no expectation to spend money, you can stay as long as you like and no one will look at you sideways for being there alone. That’s pretty incredible – and there’s a lot of evidence to show that public libraries greatly enhance their communities by making society a little bit fairer and people’s lives a little bit easier.
At the moment library buildings around the country are closed, but that doesn’t mean that the library is closed – not at all! While many still think of libraries as bricks, mortar and hardbacks, over the past few decades libraries have been rapidly evolving beyond the physical and becoming powerful virtual institutions working symbiotically with the tangible library concept.
We all like free stuff, and no one does it better than public libraries. They’ve been dishing out the goods for centuries and no pandemic is about to stop that. Even if you’re not currently a library member, send your local library an email and they should be able to set you up online.
Of course there’s an overwhelming amount of free stuff on the internet in general, but the key difference here is that the items provided by the library aren’t free by nature: the library has purchased premium content on your behalf. It’s provided to you with no strings – no ads, no data harvesting, no free trials that you inevitably forget about and end up paying for six months by mistake.
The best thing about the library that you definitely can’t get from Google is the librarians. They’re highly trained professionals who can help you learn how to use all of the library’s resources, recommend your next read, provide guidance with your family history research, and help you find the answer to basically any question. Librarians are working from home at the moment but they’re still around and very happy to help you.
Here’s a sample of the stuff you can find in in your online library:
Audio books: It’s been a real treat having Marian Keyes narrate my walks around the neighbourhood.
Films and documentaries: Most public libraries subscribe to video streaming platforms such as Kanopy and Beamafilm, with millions of titles to choose from. Netflix who?
Magazines and newspapers: Flick through Vogue on your tablet while your flatmate cuts your hair!
Music: Many libraries subscribe to streaming music platforms and curated collections – bye Spotify.
Family and local history resources: What did your flat look like 100 years ago? Exactly the same? Mine too.
Language-learning resources: Time to brush up on your te reo or NZSL? I’m using Mango Languages through Wellington City Libraries to learn Shakespearean English… forsooth!
Kids’ and teens’ collections: Includes reading recommendations, school resources, fun websites, printable colouring pages and more. Many libraries offer virtual story time read by librarians or children’s authors… a great watch no matter your age. School students can use the National Library’s AnyQuestions site to text-chat with librarians for help finding information.
Podcasts: Some libraries host their own podcasts featuring author interviews, chats with historians and other experts, and commentary on their collections.
Online learning: Most libraries subscribe to Lynda.com, a collection of online video courses that can teach you basically any skill and how to use a wide range of software. I probably won’t learn how to create an iPhone app this week, but it’s nice to have the option!
ebooks: You can borrow from a wide range of titles, authors, and genres onto any device – you don’t need anything special. Phone, tablet, computer, anything with a screen, really. I’ve been reading on my phone lately which allows me to Google the big words from Hilary Mantel as I go.
You’re sold. Time to borrow an ebook. But hang on! You went to get The Mirror and the Light and were instructed to place a hold and wait in a queue until it was your turn to borrow it?! [Ed: as an example, Auckland City Libraries has 41 e-copies of The Mirror and the Light; at the time of writing the queue was 125 people long.] WTF – it’s an online file. Why can’t we all just read it at the same time?
Well, the short answer: CAPITALISM.
The longish answer is that the publishing world often clashes with the ethos and goals of the library world. Libraries are all about getting people access to information without barriers, while publishers are there to sell a product. With print books, libraries buy a few copies of a title from a publisher, lend them out, and replace copies where necessary due to general wear and tear. Publishers would prefer it if everyone bought their own copy of these books but libraries have the benefit of providing free advertising for their authors and titles. Library members are also likely to purchase their own copies of beloved books, or bestsellers when a holds queue is too long. Publishers saw libraries as a real threat to ebook sales – if everyone could simultaneously read the same one copy that a library bought, why would anyone purchase their own ebook? And why would libraries ever purchase more than one copy of the ebook? As ebooks are impervious to wear and tear they never need replacing – won’t someone think of the oligopolies!
The solution devised by publishers was simple: charge an exorbitant amount per title if a library is purchasing it, and lock that shit down. Libraries usually pay three to five times more than retail price for an e-copy, and these copies come with strict limitations. Libraries are often restricted to lending a copy to one user at a time (meaning that multiple copies should be purchased for popular titles) and in many cases only “own” the title for a set time period or set number of loans and must repurchase when these expire.
Ironically, this artificial scarcity hasn’t proven overly successful for publishers as studies have shown that people who want free ebooks but face a long holds queue from the library won’t purchase their own copy but will pirate one instead. My two cents: publishers are often cutting off their nose to spite their face when waging war with libraries over ebooks. The impact of library copies on overall sales has proven to be negligible and the positive impacts from libraries on book sales is far more impactful, as libraries grow new readers, build awareness of authors, increase mass discoverability, and promote titles to a much wider audience than any publisher could reach on their own. For more on this, check out this article from librarian legend Jessamyn West.
Don’t give up on borrowing ebooks from your library, it really is an amazing service. The bulk of library resources, including favourites like films, magazines, family history, music, online learning and more can be accessed immediately by many people at once, with ebooks being the quirky exception. They’re still free, though, so I count that as a win. Contact your library for help getting set up with ebooks, they can run you through the systems they use and make sure it’s all working for you.
The most impactful thing you can do to support your local public library is to use it. There’s never been a better time to do that than now.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.