Public Services For the 21st Century

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Lydia DePillis has an excellent profile of DC Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper who’s led the drive to refurbish the physical plant of DC’s libraries and turn them into appealing public spaces.

This does make me think of some broader issues. Libraries are, along with the Postal Service, an example of a kind of public service that I think is a bit weirdly focused on 18th century technological conditions. The big idea of a library is that there’s a lot of deadweight loss involved in exclusive private ownership of bigs. After all, at any given time the vast majority of privately owned books are just sitting around on bookshelves. By establishing book-sharing systems, it’s possible to achieve massive efficiency gains. This can be done by private associations (to wit: universities) but it can also be usefully performed at the municipal level.

We’re moving into a world, however, where there’s some much juicier low-hanging fruit in the realm of book-related deadweight loss. The DC Public Library system is, wisely, getting in on the e-book game. But e-books that are under copyright come with tons of restrictions. Public domain e-books can, by contrast, be distributed essentially for free to as many people as want to read them. As of January 14, 2011 devices capable of reading e-books are basically a niche product for prosperous people but that’s obviously not going to be the case forever. We’re on the verge of a world where every citizen can get nearly instant access to essentially every public domain book for free.

That means that funds—whether they’re funds from the government or from charitable sources of library funding (again, think universities)—expended on acquiring the rights to works and releasing them to the public domain could be associated with huge welfare gains. As an even cheaper alternative, we could return to America’s traditional practice of time-limited copyrights that ensured that the passing of each year entails a new year’s worth of works entering the public domain. Relatively few people understand that in recent years Congress has changed its practice and begun routine retroactively copyright term extensions that guarantee that no new works will become free to the public. If Chris Christie decided to save money by removing a couple of decades worth of works from New Jersey’s libraries, I bet people would get pissed about that.