I am one of those that waxes reminiscent of the days of the corner book store and record store. Those places that you could go to browse and talk to people about the authors and music that you love. I complain abut the big box stores, the lack of service and the big piles of the latest top ten novel, but not the more obscure title that you’re looking for. And don’t get me started about how the Amazon’s of the world are eating up every local independent.
Then comes along Spreadable Media to complicate things. The discussion around services like Amazon as being the potential saviour of niche markets makes me rethink my disdain. The idea that large online retailers or digital media distributors are helping sustain genres, creators and works that would otherwise become inaccessible and financially unsustainable is intriguing. I wonder how much the jazz and classical audiences have grown because you can get that obscure CD that would never sell in the corner CD shop online. I wonder if Steampunk would have become popular without the digital communication streams. The idea that these special interests are supportable in a centralized digital world is intriguing. As Tim O’Reilly reminded us a couple of days ago in a Tweet, “Big data is what happened when the cost of keeping information became less than the cost of throwing it away. – George Dyson.” It is certainly cheaper to keep old titles in an Amazon warehouse than it is at the corner bookstore. It is cheaper to digitize and send or print on demand than it is to have shelves full of a single title.
What does this mean to libraries? We have operated on a model of scarcity for decades. We weed, not simply because books become too dated to be of use, but because we need the space. Digital copies eliminate (or drastically reduce) the space issue. It becomes economically feasible to keep those old history books whose use might change but the books don’t become useless. It might be possible to have every volume of an obscure science fiction series for the one person every five years who thinks it’s the greatest read ever. In this paradigm, we value items in our collections for their use alone and don’t have to measure them against other issues like the cost of the space to maintain them.
Now this does miss an important attribute of the corner record shop or local library. These spaces have people who have particular interests and tastes. These interests and tastes are reflected in what is in the bins and on the shelves. They come out in the conversations. They are an embodiment of the niches that are given life support by the big online retailers. Portland is known for Steampunk, not because there is something in the water supply that generate that particular sensibility, but because there are people who have the interest and many of them run clothing shops, book stores and DVD libraries. They support the culture because it is something that they love. It is the personal connections that support these niche markets, much more than any big online retailer could. The difference is that the big online retailer has a much greater reach than the local shops and hangouts of Portland. While there may be a critical mass to create a visible culture in Portland, there are far more people potentially exposed to these ideas by the big online retailer.
The local library has the same local affect. There are people with interests that tend to impact the collection and love to discuss their interests with anyone who will engage them. It is the face to face spreadability of ideas that makes the local library an exciting place to be. It is the uncatalogued human resources that have the biggest value.