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Open question: Do libraries help or hurt publishing?

As libraries stuggle for funding, we're forced to imagine a world without them.

questionmarkI might not know who Nancy Drew is if it weren’t for libraries. Granted, I ended up buying most of the series — or rather, my parents did — but the library was the discovery zone. It still works like that for me today; I now own three Richard Russo books because of the library.

Libraries have been a part of most of our lives in one way or another, yet they are in a constant struggle for funding. Jerry Brown, the governor of California, is proposing a budget that would pull back all state funding for libraries. Some libraries, such as the Butler Public Library in Indiana, are thinking out of the box to raise funding (see the banner at the top of their site). And the struggle isn’t only in the United States.

With libraries around the world in such financial jeopardy, a couple of questions come to mind:

  • What purpose (if any) has a library served for you?
  • If libraries ceased to exist, what would the ramifications be?
  • Do libraries help or hurt publishing?

Please share your thoughts in the comments area. To continue the discussion, check out the TOC panel Solving the Digital Loan Problem: Can Library Lending of eBooks be a Win-win for Publishers AND Libraries? February 16 at TOC 2011.

TOC: 2011, being held Feb. 14-16, 2011 in New York City, will explore “publishing without boundaries” through a variety of workshops, keynotes and panel sessions.

Save 15% off registration with the code TOC11RAD

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Comments: 13

  1. As a librarian working on digital loan solutions, I certainly recognize the importance of these questions. Libraries of all types are critical for the roles they serve beyond the traditional group purchasing/group loaning model that is at issue here. Certainly we do that well, and will continue to do so in the digital contant world, but we also provide additional benefits. One of the most important is that of a place; a place for public computing and gathering, a place for academic archiving and investigations, and even a welcoming place in schools for free exploration of ideas and identity.

    So what does it look like when publishing and libraries work well together? Look no further than the long running (over 10 years!) and most excellent Baen Free Library…a publishing house that set up a library of free (free of cost and DRM) ebooks because that was the best model for spreading their content. I love author and “librarian” Eric Flint’s essays on the library at http://baen.com/library/.

    Smaller publishers, breakout authors, and voracious readers all benefit from libraries that collectively purchase and share materials. Maybe the real question is “Can libraries sustain the old model of six massive international publishing houses?”

  2. Can you imagine attending a university without a library? Would you even consider it? I doubt i would, until some truly viable substitute came along. And as much as I love the Internet, its not a replacement yet – but a supplement.

    Why would a university without a library be a bad thing? Because you would not be free to explore knowledge, and to discover. You would be unable to dig deeply into topics, and knowledge of past generations would be inaccessible.

    Seeking knowledge freely, discovery, and research remain things that are important to any educated person even outside of a school. And without a library, I would lack the resources to sustain those activities. A city without libraries could quickly become a city without an intellectual life.

  3. Libraries are where people learn to love books. I don’t buy some books because I get them for free from the library. But I wouldn’t buy ANY books if I hadn’t had the opportunity to browse and try things out for free.

  4. I’m also a librarian and I’ve been wondering this for awhile. I think Ray brings up a good point about readers learning to love books at libraries (an early freemium model?)

    Beyond that, certainly libraries seem to help academic presses. Their highly specialized material would probably not get purchased at all if there were not a whole system of libraries that will buy at least one copy.

    I suspect the same is true for major publishing with one caveat. I suspect libraries help non-bestsellers (once again, because there are a HUGE number of libraries buying books that may not be bestsellers). They of course hurt best-sellers because consumers would probably buy them anyway if they didn’t get them at the library. (Of course, for bestsellers the wait is often so long that users buy the books anyway. I know this has happened to me)

    However, I think (again, I have no proof, only a suspicion) that libraries help publishers by being a constant purchasing source is one of the few things that keep publishers putting out literary novels, poetry books and a variety of non-fiction titles.

  5. Who cares if they help publishers? Publishers are only part of an ecosystem. Libraries help Authors, Readers, Editors, Catalogers, etc. They in the very least help everyone who WORKS for a Publisher. They are a vital part of the ecosystem around reading and the preservation of knowledge.

  6. I’m sad we even have to have this conversation. OF COURSE libraries should stay, even if they HURT THE PUBLISHERS. Maybe the average idiot out there doesn’t use them much anymore, but as a poor kid with not a lot of books at home, I probably read 50 – 100 books per year from our local library. There was no other way for me to access all the books on science, classic novels, crazy young adult fiction, you name it, that shaped me into the person (and scientist) I am today. Along with the gutting of higher education (lower stipends, the slow death of tenure, don’t get me started), I really worry about the intellectual future of our country.

  7. I’m an academic librarian, and our library is packed during fall and spring terms. It’s a social hub for everything academic. And yes, Virginia, the young ‘uns like books. (E-books, not so much, but that’s another story.)

    I’m a public library patron, and that library is hopping, too. I love that it’s linked to other libraries (public and academic) throughout the state and that we can get books from a research library to any tiny town. (Oh it’s that darned first sale right at work again. For shame. That’s like piracy or something, isn’t it?)

    I’m also a writer of commercial fiction, and like most of us, not on the bestseller list. People discover my work through libraries. People can read the first in a series that went out of print a few months before the second was published. Libraries allow people to discover and connect with writers and their books and to evolve their own canons of taste. Libraries grow readers and they sustain them and publishers too idiotic to realize that we create their market for them deserve to fail. On an epic scale.

    I am also a citizen. Libraries are essential for a democracy. Assuming people can just buy whatever they need to know and that publishers will not alter books if pressed to do so or would defend the privacy of readers as libraries do would be a terrible mistake. As Eileen says, above, defunding universities and libraries is a great start in ensuring the ignorance of your populace and a great way for a country to fail.

  8. Thanks for the article. Excellent comments and discussion! If you are a Californian, and want to oppose the Governor’s proposed elimination of all funding for public libraries and literacy programs, please get active.

    Take a look at the Save California Public Library and Literacy Funding Facebook page.

  9. Jenn:

    These are important and provocative questions and I’m glad you are raising them. In Massachusetts where I am director of the Board of Library Commissioners (the state library agency) we see nothing but increased demand for library services while we are plagued with ongoing funding battles. Some good news on funding, our Governor has proposed a budget for library programs for next year that is basically level funded to this year.

    Now on to eBooks. I am part of an organization of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA) that is very concerned about how libraries will be able to make eBooks available to their users. Last year COSLA published a report on eBook Feasibility for Public Libraries (http://www.cosla.org/documents/COSLA2270_Report_Final1.pdf) that outlines some of the issues, challenges and opportunities in this space. We are continuing our work in this area with a proposal for an Institute for Library and Museum Services (IMLS) National Leadership Grant to examine what we call the Reading Ecosystem which we hope will show the positive relationship between library use and book sales. I can provide a two page summary of the proposed research that you can post if interested.

  10. For that matter, does listening to a track on radio, increase or decrease the likelihood of us buying that track. Not a perfect analogy since the track can usually be heard again-and-again. But it still merits thought!

  11. The libarary in our area is a centre which provides a sense of community. There are a lot of old and disabled people who hang around, it is used for study and children’s reading and activity groups

  12. Libraries are extremely important. They instill a sense of discovery in everyone. They are knowledge! If all these political leaders are serious about innovation, killing libraries isn’t exactly the way to start.

    Let me put this in a very Tim O’Reilly-esque phrase, libraries are societies platform for innovation. Innovation is about ideas. Just think what would be lost if people didn’t have a method to discover diversity of ideas in a physical space.

    I love my library and we need to stand by these institutions in the same way we stand for a free and open internet.

    Thanks for this post.

  13. @ Rob Maier

    Where can we find the two page summary of the proposed research for an Institute for Library and Museum Services (IMLS) National Leadership Grant to examine what you call the Reading Ecosystem which you hope will show the positive relationship between library use and book sales?

    Also, Mr. Maier: Surely the issue of demonstrating the positive relationship between library use and book sales has been researched before? (Although, if it has, I can’t find it!)