SXSW: The Fate of Libraries

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Harry McCracken /

Carson Block speaks at SXSW Interactive

Carson Block, who gave a SXSW Interactive talk on Saturday titled “The Great Library Swindle,” says that he’s passionate about libraries and technology. But he didn’t really need to tell his audience that. The intensity of his interest was very much on display during his talk, which was about the daunting challenges that public libraries face in the age of the Internet and digitization.

I knew it was ugly out there, but I wasn’t aware of all the details until Block went through them. Libraries are eager to jump aboard the e-book bandwagon, but major publishers such as Random House, Macmillan and Penguin are crimping their plans in multiple ways, including hiking prices, placing limits on lending policies or simply refusing to sell e-books to libraries at all.

“I’m not sure why publishers are so afraid of libraries,” he said. “We pay.”

The companies determining the future of book distribution are what Block called “the personal content superstores,”, Apple and Barnes & Noble. He’s not opposed to them, “but I can tell you they’re not considering libraries as their primary customer.”

Libraries, Block argued, aren’t just book-loaning facilities. They’re about also equal opportunity and community, and perhaps they should rebrand themselves as being about access, not books.

During his talk, he played sound bites of CNET reporter Brian Cooley and Bill Maher jadedly dismissing the importance of libraries. (Maher, at least, might have been joking.) But he also showed a photo of Keith Richards surrounded by books, and quoted the wizened Rolling Stone:

When you are growing up, there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully: the Church, which belongs to God and the public library, which belongs to you. The public library is a great equalizer.

Block said that sheer apathy is one of the greatest threats that libraries face — a point that was underlined by the sparse attendence at his presentation. I’m part of the problem: I moved to San Francisco in 2002, and didn’t get around to visiting its excellent main library until nine years later. Nevertheless, I left his presentation both inspired and worried.  We’ve always needed libraries; now, more than, ever, libraries need us.