Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love to cook a big festive meal and sit with loved ones and guests for what is such a defining American tradition. Over the years, I’ve become known for inviting guests from all over the world to share Thanksgiving with me and my family—China, Ireland, Mexico, Uganda, to name a few. And, I have much to be thankful for.
When I think about giving thanks, family and friends come first. But having just retired in August, I am also incredibly grateful for the four-decade career I enjoyed in professional librarianship. As a person with insatiable curiosity, who loves people and wants to provide information and recommend books, there could not have been a more ideal work life for me.
This will be my first Thanksgiving since retiring and relocating to New York City, and, like the kitchens in most New York apartments, my new kitchen is less than ideal for cooking and hosting a large Thanksgiving meal. And though my dream kitchen makeover was quickly vetoed by my husband, I still find myself daydreaming about adding a few guests around my table this year.
Top of my guest wish list: Macmillan CEO John Sargent and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. I’d also invite Eric Klinenberg, author of the great book Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, whom I’d sit right between Mr. Sargent and Mr. Bezos. Klinenberg’s thoughtful understanding of the value that libraries provide in the digital age is just what they need to hear.
More Pie, Anyone?
I have met with Sargent many times in my more than eight years working on e-book and digital content policy for the American Library Association. I can tell you that Macmillan was one of the last publishers to begin licensing e-books in libraries, and Macmillan is now the first of the Big Five to begin to retreat, just this month implementing a controversial embargo on new-release e-books, under which the publisher will now license only a single copy per title to each library system, regardless of size, for the first eight weeks of a book’s publication.
Before the appetizers were gone, I could try again to explain to Mr. Sargent why a single e-book for an entire library system is essentially worthless, even if it is perpetual access and available at a discount. But I suspect he already knows. And librarians certainly understand why Macmillan wants to entice us to buy that single copy—Macmillan may want to delay access for our readers, but the publisher still needs the marketing and discovery boost that comes with libraries cataloguing its e-books.
I could also reiterate to Mr. Sargent why piling up patron holds on a single e-book copy is bad for libraries, and explain why so many library systems across the country are reacting to Macmillan’s new e-book policy with a boycott. At my former library, the Cuyahoga County Public Library, in Ohio, we recently calculated the value of the marketing support we provide for debut authors, using metrics such as website impressions, in-branch promotions, and comparable paid advertising. The total came to more than $10,000 in value, on average. And, we offer this support for free. That’s $10,000 in value is just for one library system in one metropolitan area. But I could assure Mr. Sargent that if our already-patient readers were to be increasingly frustrated by artificially extended wait times, the value of our marketing, and the value of the library itself, would be diminished. And that would harm everyone—libraries, authors, publishers, and readers.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’d make this appeal to Mr. Sargent: be thankful for the 16,000 public library outlets that support discovery and access to your authors. We buy your books, and generations of readers have discovered your authors based on the recommendations of librarians and library workers, who carefully create collections for their communities. Unfairly singling out e-book readers might seem like a clever way to get a slightly bigger slice of Amazon’s pie in the short term, but it’s fundamentally unfair, and it will shrink the overall reading pie in time.
Alas, I have never met Mr. Bezos. And because it is Thanksgiving, I would of course be respectful. But my message for him would be blunt, and clear: stop bullying publishers, so they can in turn stop bullying libraries. Libraries are not a drag on your business. In fact, libraries are one of the engines that drive it.
Be thankful that libraries exist to help readers discover new books and authors. Be thankful that libraries help create new readers who will someday be your customers. And be thankful that libraries, funded by public dollars, are helping to prepare the engineers, coders, entrepreneurs, and creators who fuel your business. End your embargo on digital content in libraries. Allow libraries to license and offer Amazon originals and Audible exclusives. The freedom to read regardless of one’s ability to pay is fundamental to our culture and to our democracy. There is no competitive advantage that justifies undermining that enduring principle.
Meanwhile, I’d invite Mr. Klinenberg to set the tone for our Thanksgiving meal with a toast. In Palaces for the People, he eloquently captured the importance of libraries. “Libraries stand for and exemplify something that needs defending: the public institutions that, even in an age of atomization and inequality, serve as bedrocks of civil society,” he wrote, “the kinds of places where the public, private, and philanthropic sectors can work together to reach for something higher than the bottom line.”
It was with a thankful heart that I recently experienced a library from the other side of the circulation desk, at the 96th Street branch of New York Public Library. I went there to get children’s books and library card applications for a unit I was presenting at a public school in the Bronx. The children’s librarian exceeded my expectations with her interest and assistance that day. The service was wonderful.
As you might expect, mine is a family of readers. And like most readers, we depend both on libraries and bookstores. My future grandson’s book-themed baby shower spoke to the importance of the physical book, and to the importance of being read aloud to, beginning at birth. When my grandson arrives, he’ll be lucky come home to a family of readers, and to a home library already filled with classic titles such as Sherri Rinker’s Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site and Sandra Boynton’s Moo, Baa, La La La.
Not every child is so lucky. As the New York Times reported last month, a recent assessment conducted by a research arm of the federal Department of Education found that two out of three children did not meet the standards for reading proficiency set by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
“America’s fourth and eighth graders are losing ground in their ability to read literature and academic texts,” the Times reported, adding that only 35% of fourth graders and 34% of eighth graders were deemed proficient in reading in 2019. “Overall student progress in reading has stalled in the last decade, with the highest performers stagnating, and the lowest-achieving students falling further behind.”
This Thanksgiving, let’s be thankful for the hero librarians who we will need to triage with families and schools to reverse these declines. Let’s give thanks as well to the clerks, sorters, drivers, processors, and all the other vital, often unheralded workers essential to running a successful library. Many of these workers face the public every day and are routinely presented with problems that test their training and skills. And yet they typically do their jobs with good cheer, driven by a deep commitment to reading, learning, and community service.
It’s baffling to me that anyone would want to add to the challenges library workers already face by adding unnecessary restrictions. Instead, let’s encourage those in positions of power to look beyond their bottom lines, as Klinenberg suggests, and to better support the libraries and library workers that are so indispensable to our reading culture.
PW columnist Sari Feldman is the former executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland, Ohio, and a past president of both the Public Library Association (2009–2010) and the American Library Association (2015–2016).