Ebook Locals and Tourists (hint: librarians should be locals)

By Kate Sheehan |

I grew up without tourists. Not for lack of trying on the part of certain groups in my hometown. There was a flurry of activity trying to establish eastern Connecticut as a hotbed of rural, agriculturally-based tourism. If only these well-intentioned folks had anticipated the local food movement. Maybe we could have put together a Community Supported Agriculture program in town. I would have gotten on board if the end result involved good tomatoes. Although I have lived a mostly touristless life, I know plenty of people who grew up or currently live in places overrun by visitors, where complaining about tourists is a local hobby. And I have been a tourist myself, trying to seek out something local and authentic (besides, I suppose, complaining about the tourists), usually with throngs of other tourists.

No matter how committed to seeing the “real” wherever it is we’ve travelled to, tourists do end up doing touristy things. This is, after all, why we travel. To see stuff and do stuff we can’t do and see at home. We don’t travel someplace new only to establish a boring daily routine. I can happily drive past the same gorgeous fall foliage every day, but if there are palm trees, I am a tourist, not a commuter. My interest in an “authentic” experience only goes so far – I’m not going to skip the Eiffel tower if I ever make it to Paris. No matter how meticulously we research our trips and no matter how carefully we avoid any and all tourist traps, someone will be there to tell us that we didn’t have see the “real” wherever-we-are.

Librarians frequently seem to position themselves as the library’s locals, with patrons (or at least some patrons) as the clueless tourists. Those who come in to only use the computers or who only borrow DVDs are thought of, with no small amount of pity, as people who just don’t Get It. There’s a bit of snobbery here, with the librarian as the town intellectual, sniffing about the philistine who is happily providing thirty percent of the library’s circulation borrowing only (sigh!) those DVDs.

Even if we assume good intentions rather than snobbery, we’re left with the librarian fretting that the poor tourist patron isn’t having the best or most authentic library experience possible. As with the local grousing about the tourist who is pleased with the town’s most popular or seemingly pedestrian offering, the librarian wailing about those who don’t use the library in the “best” way risks being dismissed as cranky and condescending.

Further complicating matters is the conflation of authenticity with familiarity. Newness is frequently suspect, so the hand wringing focuses not as much (but a little) on those reading “lesser” books, but on those engaging in “lesser” activities (which are often tied to technology in some way or another). The librarian who positions herself as the local rolling her eyes at the shallow tourist promotes the idea of the library as a boutique specialty really understood only by the initiated.

This works as a marketing technique for a niche product, but is unwise as a strategy for gaining popular support, especially when many of us need to see that support in the form of tax dollars. Worrying about losing the warm and familiar scent of books may mark you as a sophisticate, but it is much less likely to inspire people to vote for your library’s referendum.

The smell of books can only mean one thing these days: ebooks. Ebooks should be a natural place for libraries to take a leadership role. We’re torn about books as brand. As Karen Schneider so beautifully points out, they’re the thing that keeps us in business, though. Ebooks are the intersection of the thing we’re about (books) and the thing we want to be more about (technology) but we haven’t figured out how to step up and take some ownership of the topic.  

I hope we can heed Karen’s call to action – we can’t afford to play the tourist when it comes to ebooks. In the comments on Scilken’s Law and the Future of Libraries, Tim Spalding alludes to possibly imagined patron desires as a badly chosen driving force for many librarians’ approach to ebooks. Turning to our patrons for guidance on how to offer a service is usually a winning approach, but may not serve libraries or our patrons well in this case. I’m sure most readers would love an ereader that would offer easy access to zillions of titles, but maybe not if we thought it was at the expense of the local library.

Ebooks are poised to become many people’s authentic, real reading experience. It’s how a lot of our (former?) patrons will consume the printed word. We may feel like tourists in the ebook world, but the real trap is inaction and indifference.