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The UK’s Prospect Magazine has a piece by Leo Benedictus looking at the besieged state of libraries in the UK (with over 450 library closures planned), and wondering whether this is as terrible a thing as library supporters contend given how well e-book readers work.

Benedictus suggests that some defenders of libraries might be doing so less out of a belief in libraries’ intrinsic beneficence than a moral obligation to defend endangered species, and many of the benefits of libraries can be found in e-book readers.

The talk of a future in which children cannot access books is also not just wrong, but backwards. E-readers—already available for £52, and falling—offer an incomparably more convenient way for anyone to find good things. While defending libraries, surely there is also time to promote the fact that, thanks to Project Gutenberg and Google Books, every child in the country can now download virtually any out-of-copyright book for nothing. (Piracy will doubtless do the same for most in-copyright books too, as may digital lending, though this is less cause for celebration.)

I know that my Dad—a former librarian himself—was astounded by just how many books are available via Project Gutenberg, and I have little doubt he will get more than the worth of the $60 he spent on the Kobo out of reading books from that vast repository.

I’m a little hesitant to suggest that e-books can replace vanished libraries, but part of that might just be my respect for a long-lived existing institution talking. I know that I’ve gotten to the point where I view paper books as unwanted shackles to a reading experience I would rather have on a portable device or a computer screen, and I’m a lot more likely to let a library book I’ve requested and checked out sit around for weeks unread than I am to take the time to read it.

Sites like Project Gutenberg help to replace the “classics” section of a library, but the new-titles section is a bit harder. As Benedictus notes, peer-to-peer can make up for it, but only to people who are willing to undertake the risks and complications associated with using it, and to the detriment of writers.

Perhaps some kind of digital lending library could be created after the Overdrive model, that would lend books to people regardless of geographical location, but I have a hard time seeing publishers going for that—especially if the “26 lends per purchase” model adopted by HarperCollins gains traction with other publishers.

 
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