Saturday, February 25, 2012

A few days ago, an article appeared in The Atlantic Cities about a project in New York City to convert pay phone booths into ad hoc, or "guerrilla," libraries. This is interesting to me on a number of levels.

It would be so easy to see this as an experiment combining two dead technologies because of the advent of e-books. But I think that's unfaithful to what's really going on here: an attempt to share information and entertainment in a very twenty-first century way. In an ideal world, where people replace the materials they take with other materials, I would imagine that these little libraries function much like social media does. How many times have you used your social network to find music, books, movies, or just the next internet meme? Watching your Facebook feed would be a little like watching what turns up in these libraries. Books on art and history from my friend who makes miniatures for a living, books on pet care from those who work for the humane society, or books on meditation from the Zen Buddhist. Mixed in with these would be books of general snark from an entire generation of assholes liberated from being social pariahs by the internet and 4chan. What's available is random, hard to predict, and impossible to control. 

You wouldn't look materials up and go to the specified destination, you'd stumble upon it quite by accident. And of course, it's free. When you're done you send the material on the next person by putting it back in the library, not too dissimilar from what internet pirates do with their torrents. Except, the authors and publishers of the materials in the library have been paid for the copy that's being shared. Yes, they're not getting paid for every single use by every single user, but that's not new. And what if someone found a book that they loved? That they had to share, but the book's been read so many times it's falling apart? What if they bought a new copy for them to keep, either electronic or paper and ink? What if they then bought a new copy to place in the library? Except at academic libraries, which are collecting for posterity, this happens all the time. Community libraries and large urban libraries are collecting for right now. What's being checked out? Let's go buy more of that. This paperback has been checked out by ten people and is falling apart? Let's consider buying a new copy. This would simply be an informal version of a system that's already in place and widely accepted (unless we're talking e-books, which for some reason must be different. But that is a discussion for another day).

Unlike NYC, my city has very few pay phones left in service, and they're mostly at gas stations. This makes sense in a Midwestern city that has not had significant pedestrian traffic since the automobile became widely available. So while my city, and likely most cities in my state, would not be able to use this exact design of shelves in a pay phone booth, there are other public structures such as covered bus stops which could feature shelves with free books on the honor system. I'm also struck by what affect  these guerrilla libraries could have on urban illiteracy. So many people with reading problems don't like to venture into the library, because the first thing we ask you to do is to read and write a library card application. How embarrassing if you can do little more than write your name! The library becomes the most intimidating place to go, even if we're one of the best solutions to your adult reading problems. Others rack up late fines that they have no way to pay, and so are prohibited from checking materials out, sometimes for years. This system does away with both of those hurdles. However, I don't foresee guerrilla libraries utterly taking the place of a traditional library system. A twenty-first century library is so much more than just books: it's technology classes, tutors for adults and children, book clubs, lectures on various topics, and even just an old school community center where you can go to just hang out without having to constantly buy something. But it's not random, and user input is filtered by authorities with access to purse strings and shelf space.

I will be very interested to see how the Department of Urban Betterment's experiment with pay phones and libraries pans out. What are your thoughts?


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