16 January 2012

Books as Commodities, part II

I'm still thinking about the "books as commodities" argument and our attitudes to volumes of the printed word.

On Friday night, I went to my first ever "Friends of the Library" bonus sale event as a new Friend of the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library system. The doors of the sale were scheduled to open at 5:30. I pulled into the parking lot about ten minutes early and there was a line snaking back from the door. In the dusk and about 20-degree temperatures.

Most of the participants carried either plastic milk crates or reusable grocery totes to carry around their finds. As the doors opened at 5:30, the line poured in, veering in to the sale room and their favorite sections.

I don't want to say chaos ensued, because it was slightly more organized that that, but only slightly. I'm not sure I've ever seen such a rush for books, not even the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Unfortunately, in this sense, the books were commodities. People wanted to find the best thing they can, at a used price, because they didn't want to pay the full retail for them. Yes, they are probably regular library users and all are donors to the library, putting financial support behind their use. But, in light of the commodities argument, they were proving it true.

I only bought three things -- A Jack Reacher novel in paperback for an upcoming trip instead of checking it out in hardback, a YA hardback that I'll likely read and pass on to my high school student mentee, and an "important" book -- The Magnificent Ambersons -- which is a feat in itself, me buying a classic. When I reached the checkout line, the volunteer almost couldn't believe it that I was only getting three things, especially since everyone around me was acting out of a scarcity model.

Maybe books are changing formats. Maybe ebooks are making the publishing landscape different. But so long as we don't pull a Farenheit 451 and start burning them, books aren't scarce.

Even when we have the opportunity to pick up copies for cheap, we need to remember why the printed words is worth valuing and not devalue them to commodities.

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