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At the Book Depository, with the cars and the mortgages

I’ve been fond of Ammon Shea’s occasional notes for the OUP blog; he seems to be a fun and interesting guy, and I am looking forward to eventually reading his book. Today’s note, though, seemed to be worth publicly disagreeing with.

The note is Is A Book In The Library Worth Two in the Offsite Storage Facility? He’s largely talking about how much he likes browsing, and sure, I like browsing the shelves myself. When he writes of the sense that even if he doesn’t find anything particularly interesting (and he usually does, of course, having the admirable ability to be interested in things) he will have had the pleasure of browsing, I nodded my head and thought Yes.

Digression: I know there’s the LOL abbreviation for the response of laughing out loud when reading something, now used to describe general amusement. That’s a disappointment to me, because I think the experience of actually laughing out loud when reading something is an experience worth having its own name. Now, of course, people say LOL just to mean a thing is funnyish, which, fine, language, but I liked the idea that the term described the experience rather than the text. I would also like a term for when you are reading something and nod your head, despite there being nobody to see you do it. It’s not quite the same thing—part of the LOL thing is that you risk having to explain the joke to co-workers or other bystanders, while the experience I’m thinking of is solitary (or if performed in public, not really noticeable the way laughing out loud is), but there’s a similar sense of response-but-not-communication that ties the two of them. End Digression.

Despite that head-nodding moment, what Mr. Shea is leading up to is that he thinks it would be Better if libraries were set up to allow him to browse everything to his heart’s content. He says he’s “not particularly interested in having a debate with a horde of tetchy librarians about what is the best way for them to perform an admittedly difficult job, but…” he objects to the use of off-site storage and paging. He concludes the note, “I cannot help but to find it strange that making a physical object inaccessible is now seen as a sign of progress.”

Now, of course, I would be shocked more than a handful of librarians in the world view off-site storage as a sign of progress rather than as a regrettable necessity, or at least a reasonably cost-efficient solution to a problem that admits of few attractive solutions. The reason I felt compelled to type out this cranky response is that Mr. Shea falls into a trap that turns up a lot, and this particular example is (I think) a good one. The general case is that Person X likes Object Y or Activity Y, and thinks that things should be arranged so that Person X has regular, affordable access to it. I first started thinking about this as a general category in response to the specifics of intellectual property rights and sampling: an otherwise persuasive writer wound up making the case that because it would be prohibitively expensive for hip-hop artists to track down copyright holders and pay fees, there should be (blah blah blah), that would allow us to have good music. The blah blah blah part was actually not a bad idea in many ways, but the argument was really that the economy should arrange itself so I can afford music I like. My response was that I like monumental sculpture, but I don’t expect granite or glass or craftsmanship or design to be cheap enough for me to have some in my back yard.

Sometimes, of course, there is a Public Good that gets put into play. If it turns out that (as I think will quickly happen and has probably already happened) it isn’t economically feasible for a commercial airline to make a profit while safely transporting passengers at a price they are willing to pay, it may be to the Public Good to rearrange the economy. We’d have to look at the benefit to the public in having travel for the people who can’t afford to charter their planes, etc, etc. Maybe it’s worth it, maybe it isn’t. I think it’s clearly in the Public Interest to have a Lending Industry, even (barring an enormous change in our culture and economy) a profitable Lending Industry; I think we’ve accepted that it’s worth it to us to spend some money to make sure that there is a Lending Industry (although, of course, there are differences of opinion about how much money, and how to go about it, and how to minimize the support whilst maximizing the Public Good). Is that true of the Airline Industry?

We’ve largely decided that Opera, f’r’ex, and Symphonic Music, and the conservation and display of Visual Art, and some other aspects of Cultcha are Public Goods that require subsidy, even as there is massive disagreement about whether that subsidy should be through the government or private philanthropy (or, more realistically, the proportions of the two). And although there are different ways of looking at the issue, in point of fact, nobody really thinks that it’s possible to run an Opera or a Symphony or a Museum on the money you charge for admission. Not with our current economy, labor costs, energy costs, etc. Not going to happen. Nor do we fund Higher Education with the cost of admission. Nor, of course, the libraries associated with those institutions of Higher Education. Are the Universities a Public Good worth subsidizing? Again, we’ve largely decided yes, they are, and the argument is over how to subsidize them. What about libraries? Again, yes, absolutely.

But what about browsing? I totally agree with Mr. Shea about the joys of browsing and specifically the joys of browsing through old books and periodicals. And, clearly, there’s no possible way for unsubsidized browsing to work: nobody is going to make a profit selling tickets to an enormous room of old periodicals. I’m not saying you’d have no customers. I’m saying if you took the cost for a year and divided it by the gate number, you’d get a very large number, and if you set the ticket price at that number, you wouldn’t get even half of the gate you started with, so you would have to set the ticket price even higher, pricing out more of your customer base, and pretty soon you’ve discovered that it’s easier to sell burgers.

So is browsing more like a symphony or more like my fondness for monumental sculpture? I have a pretty expansive view of the Public Good (and a pretty narrow view of the costs of tapping the Public Purse), and I love to browse among old books, but I can’t see it. I just can’t. That’s getting into the category of foot massage and bowling leagues. They are good things, and I personally would benefit from massive subsidies, and furthermore there are indirect benefits and increased productivity and so on, but seriously, I don’t see it.

And (to bring this all back to one of The Topics of our society at the moment) I think it’s a good idea to have those conversations, about (a) what things, in a capitalist system, it’s possible to provide at a profit, and (2) what things that do not fall into that category we want to subsidize anyway, and (iii) how much we’re willing to pay for them. And, you know, there are things that can be run at a profit (say, energy plants and prisons) that we may prefer to subsidize so they are run for a greater Public Good than capitalism will. But that’s a different conversation. The one I’m on about acknowledges that browsing, or automobile ownership, or opera attendance, or collecting momumental sculpture may not be economically feasible on its own. And perhaps admits that we won’t choose to subsidize everything we like. And move on from there.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Well, I think Mr. Shea is claiming, somewhat disingenuously, to be having a different conversation than the one you're having. He doesn't discuss or acknowledge the financial implications to the library; his strawman is the mythical librarian who apparently likes moving things offsite. And Mr. Shea is dead against that.

And since that librarian is entirely mythical, the point of his essay simply becomes an excuse to explain how very much he likes to browse; so much, in fact, that he will cheerfully risk respiratory disease to do it.

No one could claim that the public college he mentions keeps their stuff in the cellar rather than in New Jersey because of their commitment to browsing; I assure you that if they could somehow convert that cellar space into money for operating expenses or financial aid, and move everything offsite, they would do so in a heartbeat. But since they have the space and don't have the money, there they are.

With the specific question of subsidizing a person being able to browse in a library, the opposing views seem to be focused on what a single library should do: namely, the one that is closest. However, we don't approach our cultural subsidies that way. We fund an opera house in big cities, and sometimes in small cities, and rarely in villages. If you like opera, you may have to travel. Similarly, it may be perfectly reasonable to subsidize browsing in a reasonable subset of libraries. The available choices are not just that Oxford and Cambridge should both have browsing or should neither have browsing, but also that one of them should have browsing. And if Mr. Shea has to go to Cambridge, I won’t cry.

The problem, as I see it, is that we aren’t centralizing that decision-making at all. Each library decides for themselves, and the collection of their decisions may bear no resemblance to what a collective decision would have been. And if that leads to no browsing within a bus ride, rather than no browsing within a stone's throw, that would be sad.

…but Cambridge is an utter dump! You can't expect people to go there.

Actually, I'm guessing from the clues that Mr. Shea is in Manhattan, and that the institutions are CUNY and Columbia, no? He's got a local Ivy League institution with a warehouse in Jersey and a local public U with a massive library. Of course, he could be confused about the local U being public (it could be BC or BU, which lots of non-locals think are part of the state system), and it's plausible to me that Widener's warehouse is in New Jersey. Or it could be UPenn and Rutgers, I suppose, although the phrase "one of the local public colleges" doesn't make sense with Rutgers, does it? And Princeton is in New Jersey, so why would you mention that as the off-site location? Hm. Cornell and some SUNY library? Yale and… WesConn? I think not.

But yes, clearly whatever public university he was browsing in has failed to find a way to monetize their cellar, not to mention their archive. Surprising, really. Swarthmore would have turned it into dorm space.

But here's the thing: Mr. Shea could clearly have written about the joy of browsing without disrespecting us tetchy librarians (not that I am actually a librarian, but I play one here in the library). He could have written it as a 'sadly, the browsing experience is becoming extinct but a few wonderful librarians have somehow managed to create a Browsing Preserve in a magical cellar' story, or as a comic 'secret addiction to paper dust' story or just as a 'I found my Browsing Place' story. But he told it as a 'librarians just don't get it' story, which strikes me as (a) very odd, and (2) tinged with the connotations of the-economy-should-allow-me-my-simple-pleasure-of-eating-three-gold-bars-a-day that led to the whole ranty ranty rant.


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