Friday, June 03, 2011

Why, As a Book Lover, I Gave Up On Libraries

I used to put my faith in libraries. Growing up I spent hours in our local library, thumbing through card catalogs, pulling down dusty encyclopedias, spinning the racks with all the mass markets... I'd leave with a bag full of books. Sometimes I'd go into the sale area, where they stacked the discontinued paperbacks, and I'd buy a couple of paperbacks for a dime each. Dime books were the best books. Even when the pages stuck together.

For a year, I volunteered in the junior high school library, and freshman year I worked in my college library.

For 2-4 hours twice a week I'd collect all the stray books (college books were much heavier than junior high books), load them onto a cart, alphabetize them in a back room, and then shelve them. Up and down in the elevator, over and over again.

Then there was the year I worked for Barnes and Noble. (The worst part was having to work at the Starbucks in the back. I was the worst barista.) But getting back to the point--

Obviously libraries have changed. And somewhere along the way I realized I don't trust them anymore.

Used bookstores are my libraries now. That doesn't mean I return books after I buy them. (Ask my husband and he'll tell you I hardly ever get rid of books, ever. Mostly because I'm afraid I'll never find it again.) But, as the books disappeared and the computer terminals appeared, I grew tired of not being able to read the book I wanted or having to wait weeks to get my hands on a copy.

So I decided to make my own library.

It's true, many of my books are used--though you might be surprised at how many aren't. The used books I buy are typically out of print, and they're not on the Kindle. Many are inexpensive collector's editions publishers don't bother to make anymore.

For example, I spent years trying to find a copy of Una Woodruff's "Inventorum Natura." It's a beautiful book, filled with fantastic illustrations of flora and fauna as described by Pliny the Elder.

Libraries and bookstores failed to help me find this book. (Yes, I tried. For years.) It wasn't until the Internet came along, with its used bookstores linked online, that I found a copy I could read.

So what's my point? Why am I being so defensive?

I've been thinking about how I want to someday make my living as a writer, yet I buy used books where the author doesn't get any money for it. Is that morally wrong?

I've always thought of a book as a product that doesn't self-destruct after initial purchase. The ability to recycle or redistribute a product on a secondary market is inherent in a product's nature.

Generally, if a living author does resonate with me, I will seek out their other work in stores and purchase it new, but not because I feel morally compelled. I just want to read it.

And if a book really resonates I will promote it like crazy. Word of mouth is a powerful thing -- many times that means putting the book in a friend's hand and saying "READ THIS." Sometimes I even get the books back. But again, I don't feel morally compelled to do this in exchange for buying used.

Am I a hypocrite because I divorce the creator from his content, and treat the content purely as a product? Is that approach conducive to the sustainability of the artist?

How is buying used different than using the library for what it was originally intended?

I am curious about what you think. Well, I know what a couple of you think, which is why I wrote this. :)

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