Jess and Anna are two public librarians whose eyes rolled pretty hard upon seeing the Atlantic Monthly’s recent article: Did Amazon Just Replace the Public Library? They chatted about what Atlantic writer Megan Garber got wrong about libraries, how they are different from a business, the issues of privilege and access, and briefly on the perception of libraries in today’s culture.
Anna: So the Atlantic article: on a scale of 1 to 10, how annoyed did it make you? I started out at like a five because I’m tired of the “libraries are OVER” articles and then increased from there. I also have a temper. I just felt that the Atlantic was missing the point of libraries entirely.
Jess: I definitely started out higher than one just because anything saying something is replacing libraries is a huge “are you kidding me?!” kind of thing. Just like you it just kept moving up. It dropped a little bit when she talked about community, but that was just a blip. Completely missing the point of libraries, and a huge part of what we’re about. Community space is grand, but libraries are about free access to information. You know what her description sounded like to me? A BOOKSTORE.
Anna: Right! Community is a big part of the library world and there are certainly lovely communities that spring up around businesses like bookstores. And that’s great – I mean, it’s extra great if it’s a small business–but it’s certainly interesting that Amazon seems to care about creating community spaces. Is it ironic that brick and mortar bookstores that might have fostered communities, struggle to compete with Amazon? I think so. But while the library-as-community-center philosophy is one that I definitely subscribe to, you’re right about access. Libraries are there to get resources into people’s hands for free.
Jess: Definitely. And I would never say that the library isn’t all those things. So when someone says that the new venture of a huge corporation–a corporation that is dedicated to SELLING THINGS–can replace that, you kind of want to send them a “check your privilege” card.
It’s really interesting about Amazon being desirous of community spaces. People talk about brick and mortar stores dying because of Amazon, but someone there realized there are those of us who will always want to browse shelves and just be in that space.
Anna: And it’s super hard, or probably impossible, to replicate that browsing experience or the serendipity of finding a random, interesting book on the shelves.
Jess: Super hard. They’ve tried through their various algorithms, but you still have to be active in your search in a way that you don’t in a building. And they decided they didn’t want to lose that kind of customer. Which really is fine when you think about who will go to that store–I don’t think it’s someone who suddenly up and abandons their indie bookstore or library.
Anna: True, because that person values the relationship that they have with their bookseller/librarian and their recommendations, likes browsing, or just generally likes the idea of being able to walk into a physical place and get a book.
Jess: I think one thing that particularly hit me about that article, is the title and what it means for Seattle. There are a lot of people in Seattle right now who are really unhappy with their public library system, and then there’s this article that’s like “hey, Amazon just replaced the library” and if the author had done any kind of research, they would have known how that looked.
Anna: Because of Seattle’s failed re-branding/re-naming project?
Jess: Yes, they spent a large amount of money on an outside consultant that, to the public, didn’t appear to do more than changing the name, and a lot of people both within and outside of the library were unhappy with the process. They not only lost fans, they lost donors.
Anna: Yikes. What a nightmare for Seattle Public. If Garber had researched more, she would have known that. Or they did know about the situation and were being snarky.
Jess: I sure hope not.
Anna: It’d be super mean.
Jess: There’s snark and there’s being an asshole.
Anna: True. That’s definitely tipping the scale to asshole. But maybe she is unaware. She also could have researched to see what else goes on in a library on a day to day basis that’s not just free materials and access. That’s something that really annoyed me. Like on any given day, so many varied and different things are happening in libraries all around the country and the world. Information and books are important but we’re also helping people USE that information and helping them actually have access to it.
Jess: Totally. I wonder when she last walked into one. I would assume that as a staff writer for a national periodical she has been into a college library, but when did she last look around in a public library wherever she might live. Is someone at the Amazon bookstore going to teach a 75 year old how to make an email account? Or tutor kindergarten through adult learners for free?
Anna: Right! And just the general fact like you mentioned before that books cost money, and it’s a privileged person who can buy all the books they want to read. Or would need to read for class or a job.
Jess: Exactly. She mentions being able to sit and read in the store, but who has time to sit and read a full book of any kind? No, they want to LEAVE with it.
Anna: And unlike a library, they are going to want you to pony up money for it before you go.
Jess: And heaven forbid you need to return it because it’s not the right book and there’s a corner bent.
Anna: I just wish that she had thought, “Hmm, before I write this article about Amazon replacing libraries, maybe I should visit one!”
Jess: You’d think that would be the first step.
Anna: Yes! Speaking of this, how prevalent do you think the disconnect between views of what a library is and actuality? It seems to me like there are frequently news articles about libraries dying. How do people not know?
Jess: Unfortunately it seems to be pretty prevalent. There are so many different kinds of misconceptions that the total is staggeringly distressing. There are the people who think the library is just for books, so hey, since everyone has an ereader now, who needs ‘em? And then there are the people who think that libraries are just for computers. And the ones who think they’re just for kids. There are the people who are financially stable who don’t think they need the library because they CAN afford to buy books, or who think they’re just daytime homeless shelters.
What did she call libraries? Cathedrals? I know it’s sort of an ivory tower thing, but the people who consider them these untouchable temples of knowledge aren’t helping.
Anna: Exactly. It’s also not an unchanging place and we don’t worship the books. We care about them, but also can be pretty unsentimental when it’s time to weed or the book isn’t serving the community.
Jess: Right. Even in the couple decades since I first entered a public library, the atmosphere and appearance of libraries across the board has changed heavily…though not really, because even then my library was a welcoming place, just with different methods of getting my needs taken care of.
Finally, I just want to throw out a disclaimer: Obviously, neither of us is out for Amazon. The only reason I don’t buy as much there as I could is because (muttering) my husband works at Barnes and Noble… Also, yes, I work at a public library and borrow far more books than I can read. But the important factor here is that Amazon and “The Library” have two different purposes. Just like I can’t shake my compulsive book buying issues just because I have a library card, no bookstore–not even one headed for world domination in combination with Apple and Disney–can replace what people of all types get from the library.
So while it’s cool that Amazon cares about creating community spaces, insofar as it helps them to sell more products, Garber and the Atlantic should remember that libraries and other bookstores have been doing this for ages. It’s also not just the space that makes a library but rather the access to information and the people who are committed to providing that access, for free, to patrons.