Amazon’s Number One Book City, Alexandria, Va., May Cut Library Hours
April 27, 2013 | 9:47 am
Attention library advocates in Alexandria, Va.: Talking points for the local budget debate are here.
Leaving us in the dark about the source of this tidbit, a Washington Post headline in the Style section blog says: “Alexandria, Virginia: the most well-read city in America.”
Similar words show up elsewhere in the media about my hometown, the oft-paradoxical Washington suburb of some 146,000 where a bronze Confederate soldier stands in the middle of Washington Street despite an African-American mayor and a generally progressive city council.
Alas, however, our number one ranking isn’t based on actual books and other items read per capita.
Rather our spot at the top reflects what the Post accurately mentions in the third paragraph. That’s per-capita “sales data of all book, magazine and newspaper sales of both the dead-tree and Kindle variety since June 1, 2012,” in cities of more than 100,000 inhabitants. Just one company, Amazon, gave us our new intellectual honors, from its own statistics alone. No one else. Not the Department of Education or the Census Bureau. Not Harvard researchers. Not Mensa. Not the New York Times or the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books. Not Jehovah himself. But you’d never guess that from the headline, and my local boosterism will go only so far.
I cherish the postcard-scenic stretches of the Potomac waterfront and the wealth of history in this town where George Washington whooped it up at Gadsby Tavern and prayed at Christ Church on the street now named after him. But geo-loyalties notwithstanding, I’ll still email an editor at the Post and request a retraction or at least a clarification of the glib headline, in the interest of throttling down complacency.
I spoke to a library staffer here. She’s appalled, too, and her colleagues undoubtedly agree even if the Amazon honor is a handy way to show the demand for library books among those already sold on reading.
I’m writing this essay to save the rest of the city and the world at large from Amazon’s reality-bending machine. No, Alexandria isn’t rural Mississippi. But it would be an absolute lie to say we’re the number one book citadel. We might not even be in the very first tier as a reading town when you consider the population as a whole rather than the wired citizens like me who frequent Amazon. Remember the digital divide? Well, it’s alive and well along with a continuing print divide.
Forget the Amazon hype. Books-A-Million couldn’t cut it regardless of a prime location on King Street up the hill from the Potomac, and I doubt that sales lost to Jeff Bezos and his crew were the only reason. What’s more, although we have a Barnes & Noble and at least one stand-out bookstore for kids, the city hardly teems with general-interest indie bookstores selling new books, at least not by Manhattan or Seattle standards.
Worse, Alexandria city manager Rashad Young has proposed a $93,454 cut in the library personnel budget despite the harm this could do to working people reliant on libraries to advance themselves through literacy training and in countless other ways. Library officials say they will reduce the schedules of three of the city’s four branches by two hours a week. Talking Books Service hours will go from 35 to 20 a week, and the materials budget for books and other items will decline by $56,000 even though it’s already well off its peak. The decision will come in early May, so any Alexandrians reading this should speak up as soon as possible; go here and look for “FY 2014 Budget Public Input.” Meanwhile, don’t forget to check out the talking points document that library supporters have prepared.
Rightly or wrongly—I’d hope that Young is wrong—he may perceive most of us as believing that our tax money could be better spent in other ways.
Why support our own local “Library of Alexandria” to the extent its friends prefer? Just buy your books at Amazon, B&N or elsewhere, right? I’m 100 percent confident those are not Young’s own feelings and that he means well and loathes the hard choices that the city’s fiscal challenges have forced on him, but in my opinion this is still a poor showing for a member of the executive board of the Urban Libraries Council. And more than a few genuine library-haters do feel precisely that way, based on my own virtual encounters with them during the many years I owned and edited TeleRead, a popular site among e-book buffs (the overwhelming majority of them pro-library, thankfully). Who gives a squat about the plebes?
Unfortunately, as is the case in so many other places, we’re talking about one city for the well-to-do and another for the underclass. Consider the statistics below in deciding the truthfulness of Amazon’s depiction of Alexandria as reading city number one for the second straight year:
• The 2009 mean price of detached houses in Alexandria is said to have been $755,470, and the mean was $539,651 for all housing units. But as noted recently by Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg, a member of both the library board and the Alexandria Equal Opportunities Commission, most of our high school students qualify for free or discounted school lunches. Do you really think their parents are bringing them up on Dickens and Austen?
• T.C. Williams, the only high school in the Alexandria, was rated a poor-performer by the U.S. Department of Education. Our city’s schools are not as rotten as many would say, and critics need to factor in such challenges as the high number of students from low-income families, especially those for whom English is a second language. Still, typical students’ reading scores here are not stellar.
• More than 15 percent of adult Alexandrians were illiterate in 2003, according to a PBS-reported estimate. I wonder how much the numbers have improved since then, assuming they have. Nearby Falls Church came in at 6.6 percent, and the best showing in Virginia, a mere 6.3 percent, was from Poquoson City. Those differences hardly flatter Amazon’s book city number one. Probably jibing with the mainstream thinking of literacy specialists in the U.S., a writer for a venerable Canadian educational association notes the benefits of the “double duty dollars” that result when adults are educated; their children come out ahead as well. The reverse would almost certainly tend to be true. Won’t illiterate adults stand more of a chance of raising a new generation of non-readers and poor readers? This is a big reason why LibraryCity favors a family literacy approach described in detail here—e-books, paper books, whatever works best for specific individuals—rather than just spending more on the children themselves. Enlighten the parents and teach them how to teach their children to read. The encouragement of verbal interaction at a young age can also go a long way, and the better-read the parent, the higher the quality of the conversations in time.
• The Alexandria’s library system’s number of some 7.5 checkouts per capita in the 2012 fiscal year—1,102,993 checkouts—might strike many as not that bad. But how useful is this raw statistic if we’re to consider Alexandrians as a whole, not just the elite? Think of the circulation number as like the mean price for detached housing, with our average skewed by the high end. The very most devoted readers will borrow the maximum number of books in one swoop and come back again and again.
For comparison’s sake, I wandered over to the library website of neighboring Fairfax County, with a population of 1.1007 million, and saw a reference to 13,034,816 loans in the same fiscal year from a collection of “more than 2.4 million items available for checkouts.” So the per-capita loan figure in the county would be a whopping 13 in a year, versus 7.5 in Alexandria. Care to take back that City Number One foolishness, Amazon?
Library foes might say the lower per capita figure in Alexandria justifies a lower library budget. My answer would be the reverse. Just what can Alexandria do to get people reading more?
The library crisis is really an education and jobs crisis in disguise, considering the complex nature of the best-paying work around here.
So why can’t the Washington Post focus on Alexandria’s realities rather than the pollyannaish pap that Amazon spoon-fed the media? The terrible thing is that the people at Amazon are no dummies and almost surely know how little correlation can exist between the number of book readers in a city and the sales statistics from a specific retail outlet, even a gorilla. Talk about an Amazon-centric vision foisted on the Post readership! Let me share a few sentences from the press release, quoting none other than the ex-editor of Publisher’s Weekly (for which I blogged during part of her time there)—now on the Amazon payroll:
‘The results of our annual Most Well-Read Cities list is [are?] proof that people across the country are reading, and also that we’re still seeing the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey,’ said Sara Nelson, Editorial Director of Books and Kindle. ‘It’s fun for us to see facts like the citizens of Cambridge are buying the most books in the business category or that one of our favorite novels of 2012, Gone Girl, is the best-selling book in the Most Well-Read City, Alexandria.’
Never mind that three titles from the Fifty Shades of Grey series appear on the Alexandria list and follow Gone Girl, itself hardly a literary classic, in popularity among Amazon’s customers in Alexandria. Let’s not be snobs, especially since Shades titles can lead fans to to other, better books. Instead dissect the actual Amazon news release carefully, and you’ll notice that it immediately segues from mentions of hot books in various cities to the arrogantly unsupported conclusion that “people across the country are reading.” At least as based on the information supplied—no actual dollar amounts or unit sales in the entire news release!—the perky paragraph doesn’t even make sense in context. I’d guess that the Amazon people knew it. Whatever the case, America’s news media blithely swallowed this swill. In fairness to the Post, it did attempt a joke about the criteria for the honors: “…they were going to have a swimsuit competition but the weather has been so weird and no one had been to the gym in a while…” But then I’d bet that at least 20 people read the baseless headline for every one who made it to the third graph with the actual mention of the contest’s cash-register connection, and, unless they had ESP, any possible irony eluded them. What’s more, even the author of the Post item was blind to the inequality angle.
Not that the Post is alone in its all-too-frequently-manifested elitism and the related parochialism. The New York Times itself has been too easy on the Digital Public Library of America initiative—a worthy start toward a national digital academic library, but definitely not a true “public library” respecting the five rules of library science. Once again we see big media’s obliviousness to the needs of the average American and below. The Times printed an op-ed published from Harvard librarian and history professor Robert Darnton, the original proposer of the DPLA and a former Times reporter. But it refused to publish my letter-to-the-editor with my own take on the DPLA. I couldn’t get an op-ed in the Times even though the Chronicle of Higher Education would later run thousands of words I wrote in an essay on the same topic. Yes, the Times receives lots of submissions. But national digital libraries are a cause dear to me, and I’ve been on the case for two decades. For the slanted and incomplete coverage, I blame the Times, not Bob Darnton, whom I respect for his DPLA efforts.
Instead of letting Amazon or the DPLA set the agenda for e-books and libraries, perhaps the Washington Post and the New York Times should do their homework and investigate library issues from a “savage inequalities” perspective and also show more concern for the average library user. The Post, in fact, did exactly that in January 2012 in a must-read look at libraries’ e-book crunch. Let’s see more like it, and Alexandria could be a fascinating case study. Our public library system is probably far, far better off than the typical system, making the funding saga of the libraries here all the more newsworthy, just as that craftily stupid news release from Amazon does, along with the launch of the DPLA’s demonstration site.
As a partial remedy, LibraryCity is proposing a national digital library endowment that not only could help supply e-books and other content but also help pay for Web-era professional development of school librarians, as well in their hiring in districts that could not otherwise afford them. I won’t go into the many details in this post. But they are spelled out here and here. A quick snippet from the FAQ for the proposal: “Mississippi spent just $1.42 per capita on public library books and other content in fiscal year 2010, according a report from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, IMLS; and Illinois, the champion, came in at a still-less-than-stunning $7.79. Libraries in my own state, Virginia, birthplace of Thomas Jefferson, far more of a friend of books and libraries than are most of today’s politicians, weighed in at $3.77 per capita. The Old Dominion at least exceeded the minuscule 57 cents in the territory of Guam for that year and the 16 cents in FY 2009.” Via the Department of Labor’s Web site, I also found that American households are spending an average of some $115 per year on books (textbooks excluded) and other reading materials, compared to about $2,600 on entertainment of various kinds. Well-funded libraries and the right kind of librarianship could expand the universe of regular readers and change this for the better.
Unfortunately, according to Kimberly Nathaniel, the Alexandria Library system’s spokesperson, the per capita spending in system on all materials last year was a mere $3.25 per capita—that’s less than the $3.77 state average for FY 2010 and the national one of $4.22 expressed in statistics from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Adding to the library system’s challenges, Alexandria’s librarians have already noticed the dramatically growing demand for e-books. And here the city manager wants to cut spending on materials by $56,000 even though the budget is already far, far down to less than $500,000 from its peak of around $600,000 in fiscal year 2005! While those last comparisons aren’t directly apple to apple, given the different fiscal years involved, the big point comes through. Next time you want a paper or electronic library book and there are a zillion people ahead of you, think about pitiful content-budgets and the need for a national digital library endowment.
As for the Digital Public Library of America, among the endowment’s potential beneficiaries, I wish it all kinds of luck on everything. But it really needs to turn itself into the Digital Academic Library of America in time rather than trying to be a “Public” Library” and unwittingly jeopardizing the franchise of the real McCoys. Americans deserve a separate but intertwined digital library system for public libraries that would share resources with the academic system but not be controlled by it—given the different needs of the typical patrons of the two different kinds of libraries. Do we want battles between Flaubert-loving academic librarians and public librarians focused on bestsellers or on the narrowing of the digital divide? It’s hard enough for the DPLA to create even an academic library in style, considering the fund-raising challenges its brilliant people have experienced with its current approach. What to say about a library catalog of more than two million items but only one linked item related to Philip Roth, with other great American authors slighted to a lesser degree? While off to a promising start, especially on technical issues, the DPLA has a tough row ahead if it won’t change its tack. It should let an authentic public library organization like the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies bring about the public digital system—while offering help to COSLA or the like as requested and while coordinating and combining such matters as interoperability, technical standards and R&D.
But what about the Alexandria City Council? Here’s what I would recommend in regard to Amazon and the DPLA:
• A nationally publicized official resolution condemning Amazon for irresponsibly stealing attention from the book needs of the nonelite of our city. No boycott suggested, just a demand for an apology. Given Amazon’s domination of online bookselling, we’re long since past the point where wired booklovers like me can avoid doing any business with the company. I myself in fact am a huge fan of Amazon’s technology on the whole and can see companies such as Amazon or Google as possible contractors for a Digital Academic Library of America as well as for a Digital Library of America (let’s avoid the word “Public” to keep the coast clear for the brick-and-mortar libraries!).
• A second resolution from the Alexandria City Council—supporting the Digital Public Library of America, while making it clear that DPLA needs to drop the P word from its name and promote the creation of separate academic and digital systems. The two library systems in fact could share a technical services organization and infrastructure to minimize redundancies. Another possibility could be an endowment-aided buyout of OverDrive (the nation’s largest supplier of library e-books) if available for sale—one way to build on existing e-library efforts and reduce the tolls of middlemen, thereby reducing the burden on taxpayers.
• Local participation, maybe assisted by grants from local philanthropists, in the DPLA’s efforts to bring the nation’s rich history online. This is one area where Alexandria could shine and help its own tourist sites really come alive with old photographs, documents and perhaps even audios and videos. It could leverage the DPLA’s technical resources and much else. But please—don’t interact with the DPLA without making very public the need for a separate national digital system for public libraries, even though it’s important to work closely together with the academics.
• A third council resolution requesting U.S. Rep. Jim Moran and Virginia’s two senators to lobby their colleagues and the White House for a National Digital Library Endowment that would get around the budget mess on Capitol Hill by focusing at first on philanthropic contributions. Moran recently said he was moving back to Alexandria from Shirlington and needed space for his 10,000 books. Imagine what e-books (no shelves required!) could do for Alexandrians like him, especially as older baby boomers lose mobility, even now the case with my book-loving wife. The technology is only going to get better and better. Meanwhile, for low-income Alexandrians and others, the digital endowment could vastly expand the range of books available, while, of course, freeing our city’s library money for other uses, such as the purchase of paper library books and the maintenance and addition of all kinds of library services.
I hope that other local public library systems in the United States can also follow the above suggestions in their own ways. Just don’t let the glamor of the DPLA, originated and still dominated by Harvard and friends, distract from public libraries’ traditional mission. The right public system at the national level could help local libraries promote recreational reading and the availability of as many items as possible to serve the diverse needs and interests of people in cities like Alexandria.
In a video interview, Vice Mayor Silberberg has recommended that children wanting to be doctors be steered toward books on science and medicine. I’d like our local public library to be a source of the right words, images and sounds for encouragement of young people and their ultimate role models, their parents. This isn’t merely about learning and knowledge and academic achievement in the usual sense; it’s also about fodder for dreams. In every way, let’s make Alexandria the “most well-read city in America” for real.