E-book vendors do not like libraries because libraries loan one e-book many times. These vendors charge high prices for their products and have all sorts of rules that make library ownership of digital formats difficult and expensive. The infrastructure costs needed to maintain e-book distribution, software and subscriptions is also high. Not all books are in e-book format as there were many books printed before the advent of the digital age. Most free books on the net were those printed before 1920 and for which no copyright restrictions apply. Having a current collection of e-books means going through vendors.
E-books are just a pain in the neck to use unless you are reading for recreational purposes. I read mysteries and regency romances on my Kindle that can be downloaded from Kanawha County Library. However, I cannot tolerate a computer screen for long periods without getting eye strain. Researchers say it is inconvenient to scroll up and down to find certain passages and to make notations using e-books. The solution for libraries is that there should be a mixture of formats.
Another popular idea floating around is that the Internet has replaced libraries. Many good people think that now everything is on the Internet. There's lots of information on the Internet, and with a Google search it can be easy to locate. Online search engines are wonderful. However, there is no free ride. Do a search for certain information and you will get pages of results from advertisers. Sometimes the Internet can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Searching on the Internet will meet your shallow informational needs -- find a pair of shoes, search for the side effects of a drug you are taking, diagnose whether you have a cold or the flu, check Wikipedia to find out when Louis VI was King of France or read about whether Miley Cyrus has made a career mistake.
Full-text articles in journals and magazines cost money. Libraries purchase these commercial databases and they are free to the public. In West Virginia the state has done this and shares popular information databases with libraries. Academic and special libraries purchase more highly specialized databases that are used for researchers and students. Sometimes, however, one has to go find the print source, which is kept in a library.
Over the years I have borrowed arguments from a great article by Library School Dean Mark Herring, in a 2001 American Libraries' article "10 Reasons the Internet is No Substitute for a Library." (Yes, I know it is on the Web if you want to read it.)
Here's how he sums it up, "Libraries are icons of our cultural intellect, totems to the totality of knowledge. If we make them obsolete, we've signed the death warrant to our collective national conscience, not to mention sentencing what's left of our culture to the waste bin of history. No one knows better than librarians just how much it costs to run a library. We're always looking for ways to trim expenses while not contracting service. The Internet is marvelous, but to claim, as some now do, that it's making libraries obsolete is as silly as saying shoes have made feet unnecessary."
As for our local library system, I believe that financial ship has sailed. From now on, if the library system can't find that $3 million, it will be time to close branches, cut hours, and lay off non-public service staff. Having a great library system made Kanawha County a great place to live. Will our local libraries have to operate like others in most of West Virginia -- on the backs of poorly paid women with the help of bake sales and spaghetti dinners given by Friends of the Library?
When people advocate for the destruction of the public library system, what kind of marker is this for our society? The democratic ideal that all people are created equal is gone and has been replaced with the idea that education, opportunity and the enlightenment belong only to the wealthy and upper middle-classes. I am hoping that the tide is turning away from this mean-spirited view and that the extreme views expressed recently against the local library system represent the last gasps of a dying and dark force.
Farley is a retired director of a special federal library and a former librarian at Kanawha County Public Library. She has a master's degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Kentucky.