Everyone I Know Orders Books From the Library

Libraries nationwide are grappling with a massive increase in the number of patron’s requests of media (including books, of course) held in their collections. An An article in the Seattle Times recently had several interesting facts:

  • The number of holds have tripled between 1998 and 2006.
    The Seattle Public Library is having a popularity problem. Thanks to its “Libraries for All” building expansion program and an unprecedented increase in use of the library’s online catalog, the number of holds — reservations — placed on books and other library materials has tripled, from about 1.01 million in 1998, when voters approved “Libraries for All,” to 3.35 million in 2006.
  • Users are using the catalog to find and place holds on books.
    Libraries nationwide, including the King County system, are grappling with the fact that a computer-savvy society has learned to tap into library collections online.

What is weird about this is that there has been a huge amount of hand-wringing lately about the decline of media as a result of the spread of digital media such as video games, YouTube, and the ease of producing over consuming media for digital media such as web communities, YouTube, did I mention YouTube? Studies throw about such sobering statics as twenty-five percent of adults have not read a book, any kind of book, in the last year.

So then who is putting holds (and presumably reading or at least paging through the books and returning them which I think still counts in the fine art of data gathering) all of these books?

I think it is probably useful to look at what is happening in the music industry which has made several successful transitions to digital production and delivery that books have yet to cross. Amazon.com was probably the first successful model for the presentation of a “limitless” catalog and this elimination of the brick and mortar bookstore with its limited shelf space and sometimes snooty, underpaid retail book clerks and this itself has a massive effect on books that appeal to a small number of people and used be hard to find (and now is just a Google, Amazon, ALibris search away). So books were there first. But CDs quickly benefits from this same infrastructure.

And then, people discovered that they could convert their existing CDs into digital files that anyone could download. In 1999 or thereabouts, Napster extended the CD catalog to include the oddities, rarities, and life recording that only a small number of people cared passionately about. Jerry Garcia said, “Our audience is like people who like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.” And with the conversions of old bootlegs, demos, and live recording to MP3 Napster began to deliver the thing that fanboys care the most about: the obscure shit

Unlike a CD, an MP3 track is cheap, easy to store, and contains rich data-handles so that it can be discovered by fanboys trolling for obscurities.

Music delivery has matured rapidly because of the pressure of pirated music. Napster was always a crapshoot in terms of file quality, file completeness, or even if you were getting what you thought you’d downloaded. A common trick was to make a homemade file or spoof and then label it is a popular track. iTunes and other commercial services have provided service to music downloads. You aren’t just paying for the music, but also a rapid download, quality in the bit depth and conversion, and also rich meta-data associated with the file. If you have ever converted your CDs en masse to MP3s, you know how painful it can be to go through hundreds of files making sure they have the right artist name, genre, song art, etc.

I think in terms of music delivery the essential nature of the new industry is there. Music is produced on computers, distributed through servers where it is cataloged and made accessible to the web, loaded into computers, and then reloaded onto hand held devices. This supply chain is as accessible and simple as someone recording a song on their laptop and mailing to their friend. Or it can be as complicated as iTunes which has “inserted value” into several of these steps: professionally produced music, professionally cataloged, stored, and curated music on the iTunes store, a fully supported music storage application for your computer, and handheld players.

Notice none of these steps require music stores with physical space, A&R, record labels. The problem here is one of scale: how to find the “rare” stuff? How to store the massive amount of obscure shit on your computer? In a sense, it isn’t do I listen to music? But, how do I manage the massive amount of music I now listen to?

And this precisely is what has happened in the music world. Music sales are horrible. The mass market for music is horrible. Less people as a percent of the population buy music. But, conversely music consumers listen to more music and buy more music than was conceivable ten years. My scale of my music library is understandable not in number of tacks, but in days of music. And soon this will be weeks of music. I would have to spend three weeks listening to my music nonstop before I repeated a track.

Is this sensible? This seems like over consumption to me. Maybe I should stop buying new music?

No way. That would be like stop buying books because I haven’t read all the ones I already own.

I suspect that books are very similar to music. I have no idea if digital books will become viable: I hope they do because that will make it easier for me to make and consume books. But, these figures of library usage point out it hardly matters. Less people may read books, but those that do are getting their hands on a lot of books and they don’t want bestsellers. They want the obscure shit.

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