Thursday, June 5, 2008

Guest column: Beth Evans of Brooklyn College Library

From time to time we host on our blog a guest column of a friend from the books world. Today we're happy to have with us Beth Evans of Brooklyn College Library. If any of you is also interested in writing a guest column feel free to drop me a line.

Making Friends Online: What Happens When a College Library in Brooklyn Meets up with a Sustainability Company on the Internet? by Beth Evans, Brooklyn College Library

Eco-Libris’s mission is to find a more sustainable model of book publishing, then it’s natural that it should become friends with a library. After all, aren’t libraries the perfect example of the three “R’s” of the environmental movement? Along with our mission to be helpmates of the school systems in our communities (those institutions with the original version of the three “R’s”), libraries, by our nature, approach books with a mindset of reducing, reusing and recycling.

Imagine a world of communal property where everyone’s backyard is the public park and everyone’s bookshelf stands in the public library. Want a book? Take a trip to the library. Borrow the book, read it – or not – , return it (most definitely), and then the next reader gets a turn. If the only books available in the community were those available from the public library, we would see a publishing industry printing out a very small number of volumes (reduce), many people borrowing and reading the same volume (reuse), and books that don’t meet the needs of a particular community being passed on to libraries in other communities (recycle).

That’s how libraries do our business and always have.

One of the benefits-turned-costs of an economically successful society has been that very little property is communally shared and that more and more individuals own duplicates of items. So if all of the residents of the borough of Brooklyn in New York City (population: 2,486,235) and all of the residents of the city of Brooklyn in Cuyahoga County, Ohio (population:11,586) owned a copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and discarded it in anticipation of the coming of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, nearly two and a half million copies of the earlier Harry would fill the respective town landfills of the two Brooklyns, or could pave a path made up of the books lined top to bottom covering the 462 miles between the two towns. Too much of a good thing is definitely a bad thing. For the environment, that is.

But libraries do continue to co-exist side-by-side with bookstores, providing access to hard-to-find, or out-of-print books and popular literature for those unwilling or unable to buy what they want. And, in a continued, though, perhaps, unconscious effort, to be the model of sustainability in the world of information seekers, libraries are increasingly subscribing to electronic information sources, books, journals and magazines that are never printed and never take the life of a tree in their creation.

One of the most apparent benefits of having electronic copies of content, and a benefit that certainly supports a healthier environment, is the fact that having an electronic copy makes duplication easy with low environmental impact. Many readers can access the same book at the same time if they are viewing the book on a web site. So duplication happens as needed and yet no trees are felled.

One of the ironies in the recent era of electronic book publishing marketing its wares to libraries was the incidence of a e-book publisher locked into contracts with its content providers, that, for copy-right reasons, forbade the virtual “lending” of its e-books to more than one individual at a time. Uh, duhhhhh… isn’t the whole point of electronic supposed to be multiple users at a time with no need for multiple copies? The next major player in the electronic book vending business with library content for sale was quick to do away with the one-book, one-user obstacle and there are a lot of happy librarians (and readers) as a result.

Libraries across the United States have gotten caught up in the greening movement, everywhere from
Seattle to the Bronx. With a green approach to information and some municipalities mandating green construction, the only thing left for libraries to do is to change people’s behavior. So while the library visitors pass their time under a green-roof on a rainy day, reading paperless books at green computers and sitting on a SmartWood certified chair, they shouldn’t be surprised when the library coffee bar asks them to supply their own drinking mug.