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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Will Amazon's 'Digital Library' Kill the Physical One? Let's Hope Not

Amazon is in talks to launch a Netflix-like service for e-books. What does it mean for the old-fashioned library?

  • September 13, 2011

Two things happened to be yesterday, seemingly unrelated. I received a package of vitamins, shipped to me from Amazon.com. And I went to the library, a few blocks from my home, where I learned that the great novelist Amitav Ghosh would soon be giving a talk, free of charge.

A third thing happened yesterday, too, something that forges a bond between the other two nonevents from my own life. The Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon.com was in talks to launch what the Journal called a “digital-books library.” Much as Netflix currently does with films and TV shows, or Spotify and others are doing with music, Amazon has its eye on developing an “all-you-can-eat” plan for digital books–for one annual fee, goes the thinking, readers can gorge themselves on e-books throughout the year.

Details are sparse. It’s not clear how far these “talks” Amazon is engaged in have gone, and it’s widely and logically assumed that such a deal is meant to make Amazon’s Kindle tablet more appealing. The new Kindle is said to be bundled with the ever-growing Amazon Prime service; it’s easy to imagine Prime growing in scope and price to encompass the “digital library” service. Beyond that, we don’t know much else. But it’s an idea, a big one, and one that seems sensible from Amazon’s point of view.

Depending on whom else you ask, the idea is fantastic or abysmal. Publishers are apparently grumbling that such a service might damage their business, devaluing books. Publishers have vied with Amazon before, as when Macmillan butted heads with the online giant over e-book pricing. (It’s not uncommon to find the phrase “love-hate” embedded somewhere in a headline over publishers’ relationship with Amazon.) Meanwhile, folks like Stephen Shankland over at CNET are sanguine, saying publishers should welcome the opportunity such a move from Amazon would present.

I place myself somewhere in the middle. When I received my package of vitamins from Amazon yesterday, I opened it–even after years as an Amazon customer–with a still fresh sense of gratitude at the superfluous trip, and the handful of bucks, it had saved me. I would be happy never to set foot in a drugstore again, those fluorescent, musak-ridden places I avoid whenever possible.

But a book is different, and the physical spaces and institutions that surround books are different. “Once upon a time, you might tell your children, there were buildings called libraries,” begins Shankland. It’s a nauseating thought. That bookstores across the country should suffer is bad enough; it’s true that a book bought at a brick-and-mortar store costs more, but the experience afforded is greater, too–the pleasure of browsing, the encounter with a thoughtful neighbor, the signing by a visiting author.

To lose bookstores hurts. But the idea of the library itself being supplanted by e-commerce is downright dystopian. Blockbuster was just a video store, Tower Records just a music store. But a public library is something ineffable and sacrosanct, a cornerstone of democracy. Libraries were the first pillars of the DIY movement, long before the age of Make and Etsy–they offered a do-it-yourself education, free of charge. No one is actually accusing Amazon of killing the library, the way Netflix pretty much killed Blockbuster. But as the e-book revolution continues to erode the physicality of books, we should ensure that it doesn’t erode, too, the physical milieus books traditionally lived in, and the crucial and uplifting services those spaces provided–lending, outreach, and the occasional talk by the likes of Amitav Ghosh, all free of charge.

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