It was a very strange experience. I’ll admit that it had been awhile since I’d visited my local library, so I was totally unprepared -- even after our recent discussion about books vs. software -- for how much it had changed.
The first change would have been hard to miss: I found the entryway to the stacks blocked by a turnstile. When I tried to push through it, an LED panel flashed “Insert Library Card” next to a small slot at the side. My tattered, old library card didn’t look as if it would fit, and indeed, it was rejected when I tried to insert it. “Access to Reading Room Denied -- See New Accounts Desk,” the LED flashed.
Looking around, I saw signs leading me to a door I’d never seen before marked “New Accounts.” Inside, a well-dressed young lady greeted me so warmly that at first I thought she must be somebody I knew.
“What can we do for you today?” she asked, and I produced my old card. With professional restraint, she suppressed a smirk over this relic and proceeded to reveal the wonderful benefits my new library account would provide. Although I didn’t understand what a lot of the features she touted had to do with a library -- being able to use my Blockbuster card to get videos at the library seemed an incongruous benefit -- I agreed to sign up.
“Just one more,” she finally said. “Initial this here and here to show that you agree your use of all lending library materials will be governed by the appropriate Microsoft End User License Agreement.”
She must have misunderstood, I said. I wasn’t there to get any software. I just wanted to borrow a few books for springtime reading. Why would I need to agree to a Microsoft EULA for that?
“It’s just a formality,” she assured me. “Microsoft provides the Digital Rights Management technology we use to protect the intellectual property rights of all the authors and artists represented here. So it’s really just an umbrella agreement that allows them to update that technology as needed. I’m sure you understand.”
I didn’t, as a matter of fact, and I wanted to ask her how DRM (Digital Rights Management) could be used to protect a regular, nondigital book. But she was already popping up from her desk: “Terrific, we’re all done. Your new card is just about finished printing out.”
She handed it to me and then led me into the reading room to which I’d earlier been denied access. All the bookshelves had been removed, replaced by a multitude of computer terminals, and she gestured to an empty one. “You get one book rental for free as our thank-you gift for opening your new account, so you should use our online card catalog to identify which one you’d like to check out,” she said.
I told her I’d rather just browse through the books, an idea she found delightfully droll. “Yes, I’m sure you would,” she chortled. “We’d all like open access to the bookshelves. But that would mean you could hang around here for who knows how long reading to your heart’s content, wouldn’t it? What kind of library is that?”