Libraries are useful

I have been living with books and libraries all my life. My father used to be a librarian, we had a lot of books (and still do, both me and my parents) and of course read them a lot. I got my first library card when I was I think five years old. This means I have a lot of emotional attachment to books and libraries. I talked about books before, so now it’s turn for libraries.

Finland has been a world leader in library usage. We have had a good literacy rate and there have been many books published in Finnish, so people also read a lot. Interconnected with this reading is of course the Finnish municipal library system. We do have other libraries (like the National library in which my father used to work), but usually when talking about the library I mean the municipal libraries.

They have been used much in Finland in the past, though now the use is declining (only in Finnish, sorry). The fact that the libraries are very cheap or even free to use probably contributes to this. I’m not sure about most places, but at least here in the Helsinki metropolitan area the municipal library card (valid in the four cities here: Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa and Kauniainen) is free and borrowing books (and other items, like cds or dvds, or console games) is free. There are small fees for reservations, but the excellent reservation system is so good that the 50 cents for reservation is a very good price.

The decline is not very well known. There are probably many reasons for that. It might be because the libraries are mainly a place for books and the books they buy are not that popular, or people might just read less.

One of the reasons will at least in the near future be the ebooks. Even though the libraries do have them even here for borrowing, there are problems with them and libraries. Not every publisher is happy with the library loans, and I’m not even sure how easy it is for a Finnish municipal library to negotiatie with a publisher based in, for example, Germany, not to mention the United States. The copying of books is an issue here. Every DRM scheme can be circumvented, and at least I’m not keen on even borrowing books which would have DRM on them.

Even with that, our local library has ebook readers and books for borrowing, so these are not unsurmountable problems. Also here in Finland people are allowed to make their own copies of music which they have gotten from legal sources, so for example cds borrowed from the library are perfectly okay for copying. The libraries pay more for this right, obviously, and nobody seems to think it’s a major issue, so I don’t think the ebooks are impossible.

Also the libraries are good repositories of books. I read a lot and buying all the books I read would be somewhat expensive and with physical books very difficult as we’d run out of bookshelves even faster than we do now. In addition to that, it’s very easy to go to the library and look for books either on a subject that I have thought of beforehand or just go and browse. Of course I can buy almost any book I can think of on the internet and even search for the books, but I haven’t yet found a web interface that’d be as good for browsing as the bookshelves of the library are.

Also borrowing books is good when you are not sure you want to own the book, either because you haven’t yet read the book or because you are sure you don’t want to own the book. I wouldn’t want this to go away even when the ebooks will dominate the market.

I have also bought books after reading them in the library and realizing that I want to own them.

Then there’s the searching for information. There’s of course search engines and forums on the net which either can automatically help searching or have users who might know where to find information, but when I’ve asked librarians about where to find some obscure piece of information, they’re unsurpassed. Also the libraries contain also old books – not everything is on the Internet, yet – so having a repository of information from thousands of years has its merits.

This also comes back to the piece I wrote on the permanence of items. If somebody makes a book, chances are the effort is big enough that not everything gets printed and somebody should have done some editing, so the books are an edited version of information. This doesn’t of course hold for all books, as there’s a lot of complete crap published, but it works for me.

So, librarians and having books from many years ago are good things. Even if the information itself would be out of date, there’s the metadata (heh) about the history: you can tell a lot about the time period and even how people thought by reading old books. I would want that to stay. Of course, it seems that having good skills in searching for information and deciding what to trust is important with the Internet, but having professionals for that for everybody is useful.

The libraries as  repositories is of course not so much of a matter for municipal libraries, though they do their part there, but more of the aforementioned National library, and of course other, smaller and more dedicated libraries.

This far I have been talking about libraries as places to borrow books (and that other stuff) from and perhaps ask what to read. The libraries have other uses, too, and they are very useful for poor people.

One thing the libraries here do is subscribe to a lot of newspapers and magazines. One can of course debate how useful they are, but I did address that already. Subscribing to all magazines would be again expensive and it’s good to have them available. One option for not subscribing to a daily newspaper, especially with little money, is to go to the library and read the newspaper there. I have read a lot of magazines (for example Scientific American) in the library when I didn’t have the money to subscribe to that, and I did read a lot of Pienoismalli scale modeling magazines as a kid, but I really didn’t want to subscribe  them.

This is a good thing from libraries: they provide subscriptions to magazines and newspapers for people who for various reasons don’t want to get them to their home.

Here the libraries also have other services. Every library seems to have at least a computer or two with an Internet connection and they’re very useful again for people who for some reason don’t have (or want) one at home. I think, with no reference, that they are very useful for many people, especially nowadays when more and more services are only on the Internet.

There are also more rare things which libraries are in an unique position to provide. Today I was in a story reading session for children, in a library. This session was special in that it was done in the Finnish sign language, taped and should’ve been broadcast on the Internet. Technical problems prevented the sending of the story, but old sessions have been made available already.

This is one thing libraries are a very good enabler for. They aren’t the only organization in this, but they did provide the room and technical and practical experience on doing story sessions. I think doing that would’ve been much more difficult without libraries.

There are probably other good reasons for libraries, even in the changing world where all books would be available on a personal mobile device for almost free, but this is getting long already. Please add reasons in the comments if you can think of them.

There’s also the fact that I seem to have a face which the local librarians notice easily. I don’t think I’ve lived anywhere where the librarians don’t remember me soon after moving there. The libraries are a very important part in my life, and I spend a lot of time in them, for reasons stated above and also because I just like them. For some years now we have visited the local library almost weekly with my daughter. She seems to be growing into it, too, and I hope her possible children would have libraries, too.

On physical media

Even though most of the media I consume nowadays is available in downloadable digital form, accessible through the internet, I still have some soft spot for some physical media.

I haven’t yet bought that much music online. I’m an annoying nitpicker and almost all the music I have bought in the last 25 years has already been digital, except the ten or so LPs I did buy because I got them cheap (I don’t have an LP player anymore). I still buy cds occasionally, but less than I used to, because after putting all my collection on a hard disk, I found out that I have more than enough music to listen to. So, there quite few new physical music items in the house. I do buy some records by small Finnish bands occasionally, though, and I do like the album art on some cds, but I rarely look at it, so I probably could do without buying physical music at all.

This week Jari, my friend, commented that I’m “one of them”. I asked what he meant and he said that I’m one of the few people who still subscribe to physical magazines. The one I had just mentioned I subscribe because my union provides a subscription two magazines out of eleven, and I thought this computer magazine, MikroPC, would be good. I also subscribe to Scientific American.

I like to subscribe to these two magazines. They both have interesting articles, and I probably could subscribe to them digitally and read most of the articles online, but for me having the physical magazine makes me read them more thoroughly. Even if I could subscribe to the magazines for a tablet (and if I had a tablet), I probably wouldn’t. I throw the magazines away after reading, though I do pass the Scienfic Americans to my father-in-law first. (He does the same thing for Tekniikan maailma for me.) This means I don’t collect them, like I used to do for some magazines earlier.

The physical magazine is somehow a collection of interesting articles and other pieces, which somebody has put some effort to compile. This makes it more enticing to read for me than the same articles on the internet, and they are a reminder at home for me that I do have some reading to do. It’s very easy for me to get distracted when I’m on a computer, so I don’t feel I concentrate on the reading that much.

So, for now I’ll subscribe to some magazines, just to get the editing done. I do miss the Mathematical Recreations columns in Scientific American, but there are other good columns in it. even now. When I get a tablet, I’ll probably subscribe to other publications, but on the desktop computer I don’t see the need, and even with a tablet I probably won’t read in the same way.

We also do own a lot of books. I have bought less and less books lately, but I haven’t yet bought a tablet or an ebook reader, for various reasons, mostly having to do with Yet Another Device syndrome and DRM. I will probably get a tablet at some point and hope it can double as a non-DRM ebook reader, which it presumably will, but the time hasn’t yet come. I do use the library a lot, and they loan out physical books still.

I have long venerated the physicality of books – I like them as objects in themselves, as my parents owned (and still own) a lot of books, and like the idea of having a filled bookshelf. I have also thought of physical books as being more permanent than ebooks, but John Scalzi wrote this week about the permanence of books, and that got me thinking. I already consider my “real” music to be on the disk, so why not books? I think I stated the reasons in the previous paragraph, though I still like books. I won’t get rid of all the physical books, but when the DRM problems get solved, and when somebody thinks of publish ebooks usably in Finnish, I’ll get a reader and not look back.

For some things having multiple physical books is a boon, though. I have planned many roleplaying sessions with 5-10 books open at relevant pages and even though an ebook device (or a computer) can of course have that many books open, the display is not as large as my kitchen table or living room floor. (I expect to have a working kitchen table touchscreen in the future, though. This will change things.) So, for that having the books just as ebooks would not be as useful as physical books. Also for some art references it’s good to have multiple books open.

Today I also noticed that I have too many physical media for computer games. I finally threw out the Space Quest collection I had. It didn’t work very well in the Windows XP I tried to run it in last, as the discs said that the game was optimized for MS-DOS and Windows 3.1. As these are not very current systems and I can get the game (rather, games) for current Windows at Good Old Games very cheaply, there’s no point in having the games on cds as badly working versions.

Usually I don’t like buying the same content twice in different formats, but getting old programs working is always a hassle. I also don’t play those old games that much, so I don’t have to buy them.

I should probably sometime soon go through the games I own and see which ones to throw away. Not the Ultima V box, as the map is very good, but other stuff could go.

It seems that mostly I don’t need most physical media, though there are some benefits to it, and also some nostalgy. The permanency issue is not clear-cut and I think I’ll return to it later as this is getting somewhat long already.