Patrons Are Consumers, and Consumers Are Patrons; or, How Publishers Can Learn To Stop Worrying and Love Libraries Again

ProfilepicUpdated.jpgEditor’s Note: Among my hopes for TOC going forward is increased and productive discussion between all the various and sundry players in our readerly world. Chief among those players who we publishers sometimes woefully neglect — librarians. My favorite librarian advocate, Heather McCormack has graciously offered up a few eloquent (and entertaining) thoughts on the sometimes strained relationship between publishers and librarians. Enjoy, and please share your own thoughts in the comments. ~ Kat Meyer

Like all my favorite phenomena–Joey Ramone, punch-drunk love, Peter Pan donuts–this marvel has not been adequately documented, celebrated, or researched. I first encountered it as an adult circulation desk attendant at the Fargo Public Library in the summer of 1998. I was 23, freshly kicked out of the womb of liberal arts college, and a little depressed to be constantly reshelving Danielle Steele and The New Joy of Sex for minimum wage. I don’t remember his name and am reluctant to re-create our conversation, but I will say this favorite patron, a genial from head to toe senior citizen, loved the Western author Zane Grey so much he had read all of his books a dozen times over. From the circulation desk, I’d see him crouching to take in their yellow spines as if they were newly unearthed diamonds.

One day, the inevitable happened. Another patron checked out the title he’d singled out to reread next. He was heartbroken, the closest I’d seen him to unpleasant. My solution was simple: Buy the books you love so much already! He dismissed me in his delightfully swinging accent, the Midwest by way of Brooklyn. The next day, he dropped in on me in the stacks, receipt proffered for my inspection. He had purchased Grey’s complete oeuvre on (a website I had yet to visit).
I remember my response and a twinge of sadness.
“Is this good-bye, then?”


Of course, I saw that patron many times after his splurge, and before I left Fargo for New York to start at Library Journal, he gifted me with a handwritten list of Manhattan’s best bookstores, where I made pilgrimages in search of rare Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches, and Robert Palmer. At a now-shuttered shop on 13th Street, just a stone’s throw from famed The Strand, I scored Tosches’s Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story. Bangs’s Creem writings eluded me until I thought to meet the lions at the Main Branch of the New York Public Library.
Twelve years later, while following the tweets from the 2010 Tools of Change conference, it hit me–there’s a powerful library-bookstore connection, a bona fide phenomenon that two people generations and states apart perpetuated unknowingly and that likely plays out every day around the country. Annoyed at the exclusion of libraries from the ebook pricing conversation, I tweeted, “Library patrons are consumers, just as consumers are patrons.”
To be fair, my irritation had been mounting all winter. Libraries had little to no representation at the inaugural Digital Book World conference in late January; ditto in the fallout of the Macmillan/Amazon face-off. Worse yet, ebooks did not garner marquee billing in a single panel at the Public Library Association’s 13th National Conference in March, even though there’s strong evidence to suggest that more funds are going toward downloadable content and that its acquisition leads to significant surges in public library circulation.
Worse still, public librarians strike me as individually disengaged from the ongoing pricing debate. Anger over expensive content licenses, complacency in their young marriages with Overdrive and NetLibrary, and an almost fatalistic attitude about DRM–all of these are reasonable reactions to an issue that has probably exploded a dozen of my synapses. But as service strategies, they’re epic fails. To me, a library has a responsibility above all else to remain relevant to its community. In most cases, this will mean making like Roman gladiators and grappling with ebooks, no matter how ridiculous their cost, formats, or readers.
Of course, book publishers have complicated an already mucky scenario. As LJ columnist Barbara Fister pointed out, panic is driving their strategies more than logic, especially regarding a library pricing model. Most CEOs and digital strategists will go on the record only to say they’re “open to talking” with librarians–PR speak that plays to my ears as, “Holy, John Sargent, don’t those people circulate stuff? Not. Gonna. Happen.”
Allow me to be clear: I respect publishers’ right to make money. I want houses large, medium, and small to thrive, or I’m out of a job and a calling. But somewhere, some publishers made the mistake of deciding that libraries pose a threat to their shrinking coffers even as they remain loyal customers in a harrowing recession; that the free exchange of information they encourage is suddenly anathema to a business that has relied on word of mouth for decades. How these misconceptions originated is not as remarkable as who they’re hurting–publishers, libraries, bookstores, authors, and readers, the entire reading ecosystem.
That patron. I’m ashamed to have forgotten his name, but I can still picture his face lighting up about Fourth Avenue, New York’s one-time Book Row. I still remember the shops he recommended, even though all but two are closed. Today, I remain a loyal patron of those bookstores and the city’s three great library systems, just as I’d wager that North Dakota gentleman is still enjoying both the Fargo Public Library and Amazon.
This is just one story, but I bet you know five people who know five people who have used a library, then shopped in a bookstore, then gone back to a library before returning to a bricks-and-mortar or Amazon. And so on and so forth goes a gorgeous little loop that leads to innumerable sales and circs that no one’s bothered to measure. As a result, publishers and librarians are in a standoff of sorts. But it’s not too late for detente; in fact, it’s just the right moment for taking stock of a relationship that must be strengthened, not severed.
Bio: Heather McCormack (@hmccormack on Twitter) is a lover, a fighter, and Book Review Editor of Library Journal. She and her colleagues are in the thick of organizing a virtual ebook summit for public, academic, and school librarians, scheduled for Sept. 29, 2010.