Friday, February 11, 2011

Further thoughts on the McSweeney's series

After having a chance to read and ruminate a bit more on the McSweeney's "Some Good News from the World of Books" series, some thoughts. While I know this series was designed to look for the "silver lining," as it were, I think the rosy picture painted by some of these essays offers an incomplete view of things as they are. The points that follow are by no means a comprehensive list of the possible counterpoints that could be raised, but do address what I see as some areas where additional perspective is necessary.

On Ben Shattuck's piece on libraries - the uptick in library usage and circulation figures are great, but the severe funding decreases (resulting in branch closures, layoffs, cutbacks in acquisitions budgets, &c.) that are accompanying these trends should not go unmentioned. Readers can't use libraries if they're closed.

Also, libraries may face the serious problem of not being able to lend any items manufactured outside the U.S. from their collections under a new interpretation of the "first sale" doctrine promulgated by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (see the ALA's brief about this issue [PDF]). While the Library Copyright Alliance's Jonathan Band suggests [PDF] that libraries are probably safe in continuing to operate as usual for the time being, if the Supreme Court were to uphold the Ninth Circuit's ruling it could prove disastrous for library operations.

Libraries also face the looming threat of just what they're going to do about managing the rise of e-books. The collective "head-in-the-sand" attitude of many (though certainly not all) in the library world to the rise of digitized and born-digital materials is, sooner or later, going to have to end, but by then I fear it may well be too late. I've said for a long time that I suspect libraries will end up being full of computer terminals (for access to the vast majority of material) and rare book rooms (for we happy few who delight in such things) - that may be coming sooner than most librarians care to contemplate.

Joseph Sunra Copeland's essay on U.S. book production offers some interesting figures, but the numbers and discussion barely extend much past 1975, which seems slightly surprising. I've read it several times, and I still feel like I'm missing something. And while it's certainly interesting to note that increased numbers of books are being published, questions must be raised about whether the quality is rising along with the quantity.

Should we care about this? Is a title published by any given vanity press inherently less "important" than a title that would have been published by, say, a university press had the press not been shuttered due to budget cuts? In 90% of cases, I'd venture to say, the answer is yes. I'd rather see 10 titles a year that have been vetted by good editors, designed with some careful consideration, and produced well, than a million that have been churned out like biblio-sausages in some printing warehouse with no intermediation at all. Numbers aren't everything - or shouldn't be, anyway.

I have minor quibbles with some of the other essays in the series, but that's enough for now. I may add additional comments about these or future installments as events warrant.

The McSweeney's empire itself is a great example of what's working very well in the publishing world of today, and I wish it continued success. I certainly appreciate their efforts in starting this conversation.

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