Monday, October 14, 2013

At the Library

“We don't really market to libraries. We don't want readers to get the idea that they don't have to pay for content.” – Representative From a Publishing Company Which Shall Remain Unnamed

As I write, I'm sitting at a table in the corner of the non-fiction section of my local public library. My plan for today is to get lots of writing accomplished, which means I need to get away from the internet. Turning off my wireless at home doesn't always cut it; it's too easy to turn it back on. So I need to be somewhere else. I need to be at the library.

Then how are you posting right now, genius?

While preparing for my day, I remembered hearing the quote I posted above. I was at a workshop hosted by a particular publishing house, listening to a presentation meant to sell authors on why this company is the place to be. Things were going along okay, until someone in the audience asked what kind of penetration the company had with libraries, and one of the publisher's representatives said … that.

It was one of those moments when my jaw quite literally dropped. I couldn't believe someone whose business is books could so casually brush aside the entire concept of public libraries. We don't want readers to get the idea that they don't have to pay for content.

Holy – pardon my French – merde.
* * *
I've been addicted to books from the beginning, and while my childhood room had a little shelf crammed with many of my favorites, the library was the primary supplier of my drug of choice. Every time my mom took us there, I exchanged one heavy pile of books for another. It was nothing for me to leave with five or ten or more. My parents never could have afforded to purchase all the reading material I tore through.
Fine, Baby Jesus. We'll read Goodnight Moon. Again.

To be sure, they bought me plenty of books over the years. For my birthday, for Christmas, for just because. When in doubt, a book was always (and still is) the perfect gift for me. Still, the sheer volume of them I consumed... If I were to add up the cover prices of every book I have read in my entire life to this point, the total would probably sustain a small country for a year.

My first act of scholastic misfitery happened in the fifth grade. Being the top of the elementary heap, fifth graders were assigned various responsibilities around school. I was put on the safety patrol, which came with a neon orange sash and the power to enforce hallway rules of orderly conduct. It was a prestigious position. Being the visible face of authority is heady stuff for a ten-year old.

But it wasn't good enough for me.

You see, another position given to fifth graders at my school was that of Library Helper. I was wildly jealous of my library-working peers. So one day, my stomach roiling and palms sweating, I got up with my Library Helper classmates when they left for their duties. I lied right to Mrs. Anderson's face, and told her I'd been asked to be a Library Helper, too. I slipped into the library with the rest of the group, pulled an identification button from a basket, put it on... and I was in. I was a Library Helper.

I must have lied to the librarian to explain my presence, as well, since fifth grade tasks had long since been assigned. Either that, or no one was going to raise a stink about a rebellious act of volunteerism. A friend showed me the ropes, and soon I was shelving books, sorting media materials, and working circulation like a pro.

My favorite task was processing new books. To reach into a cardbord box, pull out a shiny new book, and be the first person ever to open it was a rush like nothing else. Wielding a rubber stamp, I branded each new book with the name of our school. There was a system to it: Inside of the front cover, page five, page thirteen, etc., inside of the back cover. I carefully adhered the manila pocket that held the circulation card for each book into the back cover, as well. Then I prepared the card itself. I scribed the book's title across the top of the card and, armed with one of those wonderful, heavy stamps constructed of metal, with rolling gears and that satisfying ka-chunk noise, I memorialized the date the book was introduced into the library. Now it was ready to be released into the library wilds, there to wait until a child picked it up and discovered a new world. And I was part of this magnificent thing.

We don't want readers to get the idea that they don't have to pay for content.
* * *
A man has taken the table beside mine. He's wearing a long-sleeved chartreuse shirt and a bow tie. He seems to be dressed for work, and I wonder if he's just passing the time here while waiting for a business appointment. There's a pencil and a highlighter on the table, too, so maybe he is at work, like me. A cup of Starbucks is sitting at his elbow. Three paperbacks are on his table; he's looking through one of them. He has a little laptop computer, too. He spent some time on it, but now it's closed.

And here's my table.
Suddenly, I'm wondering how many of us there are, officeless workers who make the library our temporary base of operations on any given day.

Plenty of writers like setting up camp in coffee shops, but that isn't really my scene. Coffee shops are noisy, plus there's the understanding that you should actually spend money there. It's rude to take up space in a cafe without patronizing the business. And I get that. I do. But the library doesn't want anything from me. No one is going to give me a dirty look if I sit here for three hours without making a purchase. If I need to stretch my legs, I can stroll the stacks. If I'm thirsty, there's a water fountain.

When I came to the library's website this morning to double-check the hours of operation, I noticed the calendar of events in a sidebar. Several times this month, there will be sessions offered to help members of the community navigate through the new Insurance Marketplace. There are computer literacy courses. A class on researching family history. Star gazing parties. For the children, there are puppet shows, movie days, story times.

The library is part of the community. It doesn't just offer books to anyone who wants to read, it helps the public lead richer, better informed lives.

We don't want readers to get the idea that they don't have to pay for content.
* * *
Creative writers sometimes say they don't write for the money. That's mostly true. I would write no matter what, whether or not another pair of eyeballs ever saw my words. I've written for most of my life, but have only been published for one year out of the … lots … since I learned how to form letters. In the grand scheme of things, my life as a published novelist is a blip on the screen. But the truth is, I'm a writer who is trying to build a career as a published author. And publishing is a business. That means I have to care about sales and money and marketing and all sorts of stuff that has nothing to do with the writing.

But the point of being published, to me, is getting my work to readers. It's sharing my stories with other people, and hopefully contributing something meaningful to their lives. If people get my books by purchasing them, wonderful. Awesome. Every sale is humbling, and I am so, so grateful to each and every one of you who has financially contributed to my fledgling career. But I'm just as grateful to those who have told me, “I got your books through my library.” To them, I have said, and will continue to say, “Thanks for supporting your local library!”

I love my readers, no matter how they find my books. It's just as thrilling for me to see my books in the catalogs of libraries all around the world as it is to see my sales numbers slowly increasing. Knowing that libraries carry my work is just amazing. I'm right back in the fifth grade, reveling in being connected to something as utterly fantastic as libraries.

King George, tear down those library doors!
Public libraries are one of the few truly democratic institutions in our society. It is open to absolutely everyone. The knowledge inside these walls is on offer to any person who cares to avail themselves of it. Right this minute, there is more information packed inside this building than the average person was ever exposed to over a lifetime, just a few generations ago. My library isn’t particularly grand when compared to lots of other places, but there are still more books here than I will ever read, and more coming in all the time. It doesn't matter if you're a billionaire or a nickelaire, the library is yours to use.

There have been times in my life of financial hardship, when I could not afford to purchase books. No one here asks to see my bank statement or last two pay stubs before letting me check out materials. Aren't hard times like those precisely when we need libraries the most? With nothing more than the trust that I'll bring them back again, I'm permitted to take home as many books as I want. I get to escape my troubles for a little while. The library has been an oasis when I desperately needed one. It has given me more enjoyment than any other institution I can name. How could I ever, ever begrudge anyone that same joy now that I'm part of the publishing industry?

So when that person said, “We don't want readers to get the idea that they don't have to pay for content,” what I heard was, “We don't want readers.” I scratched that company off the list of publishers I would consider working with. I care about readers. I want readers.

As a reader, I will forever love the library for making it possible for me to discover and experience so many amazing books. And as an author, I will always champion libraries. My novels belong there, where anyone who cares to read them can.


  1. This is my favoritest of your posts. There is nothing like the smell of a library - it's better than the smell of a book store. I could get lost there. In my mind, all libraries have the sound of dribbling water as the library where I grew up had a fountain in the center. I can't imagine one who sells books completely discounting the power of the library. I will almost always try out a new author at the library, and then maybe later purchase their later volumes... The library is the original first drug pusher of any obsessive reader like me.