»  The New York Times

August 24, 1999

  A Library That's All Too Free


The other day I needed to track down a quotation. I was writing an article about Taiwan and I wanted a few words to illustrate Mao Tse-tung's attitude to the island. (He favored its independence — no kidding.) I recalled seeing a suitable reference in The Economist at the time of the last Taiwan crisis, three years ago; so I headed to my nearest branch of the New York City Public Library, which, as it happened, was the Donnell branch in Manhattan's midtown. I knew the Donnell has back numbers of The Economist on its shelves.

Alas, they keep back numbers only for two years. I went to the desk for help, knowing that there are subscription databases that can be searched for references like this. Sure enough, the assistant fiddled with his computer for a minute or two and came up with exactly what I was looking for — the entire article, which he printed off for me. "Very handy, that," I said. "Wish I could afford to subscribe to one of those things." Gently he explained to me that no subscription was necessary. So long as I had a New York Public Library lender's card, all I had to do was call up the NYPL web site, select "electronic resources," and key in my card number when requested. I then had access to current and back copies of hundreds of magazines and journals.

This took a while to sink in. I tried it out when I got home that evening and amused myself by looking up my own and my friends' journalism. Not until I had whiled away an hour or so like this did it dawn on me: I'm reading magazines on the web for free. I could even bring up the London Spectator, to which I have a rather expensive air mail subscription, and read the issue that had not yet reached me!

I should explain that I am something of a magazine addict. I have at least a dozen coming in to the house, plus the journals of various scholarly and professional organizations I belong to. This is a habit that started in my English childhood with the weekly comic papers published by the D.C. Thomson organization of Dundee, Scotland. I can still remember the days of the week when the various comics appeared: Beano, the best of them, on Thursdays, Dandy — generally inferior, but redeemed by the presence in its pages of Desperate Dan the dimwitted cowboy — on Tuesdays. Wednesdays was the Eagle, not a D.C. Thomson paper and more of a heavyweight, with comic-strip versions of classic stories and cutaway diagrams of submarines and the like … Nowadays of course it is New Republic, The Weekly Standard and American Mathematical Monthly; but there is still the same pleasant anticipation in seeing them there among the daily mounds of junk mail and the same absurdly disproportionate vexation when a favorite is a day or two late. (I once fell out with my local sorting office over this and got no mail at all for three weeks. Don't mess with the USPS.)

But now I can read them on the web for free! For a magazine junkie like myself, this is like being told that if you mumble the Lord's Prayer backwards while filling out your tax return, your rebate will be automatically doubled. It is the elixir of life; it is the philosopher's stone. This, one is reminded, is how revolutions happen — appearing at first in the newspapers and at dinner-party conversations, until one is bored with hearing about them and the boredom itself becomes a dinner-table joke … then suddenly touching one in some particular and personal way. It has been some time since I bothered to read anything about the Information Revolution. In common with most people I know, I have more pressing matters to think about. I keep up as best I can, of course; I have an e-mail account and shall get a personal web page, oh, sometime soon. I buy books, shoes and PC gadgets on the Web. I never thought it worthwhile to form an opinion about the thing, though. It was just happening out of sight somewhere, occasionally delivering minor incremental conveniences to me.

Now it is real and personal, and I am thinking furiously about it. What will happen to all the magazines when people find out about this? Are books next? Instead of selling you a book, will Amazon just sell you the right to read it right there on the screen? They have got my attention now.

I do think, however, that my library is now giving me more free services than it ought. While I was in the Donnell that time, the fellow who had looked up my reference for me urged me to write a letter to the City Council to protest some cuts in library hours that are being contemplated. Well, I have a suggestion for the Mayor and his colleagues to bridge whatever funding gap has opened up: charge us an annual fee for our library cards. Sure, I know, we pay already for the service through our taxes. But that is a charge for living in a city with an excellent library service. Those of who actually borrow books, or use these marvelous new electronic facilities, ought to pay for the privilege. There could be exemptions for students and retirees, of course — though I'm not sure that a student who comes to apply for his exemption wearing eighty-dollar sneakers should be given it. The doors of our libraries would still be open to anyone who wanted to use them for reference. But the principle of free service has gone too far when it spares middle-class magazine addicts three hundred dollars a year in subscriptions.

Make us pay.