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January 02, 2007

Libraries vs. Amazon

This is weird:

Checking Out [John J. Miller]
Are public libraries supposed to repositories of the best that has been thought and said, or are they supposed to compete with bookstores for customers? In Fairfax County, Va., librarians are removing classics that haven't been checked out recently so they can make more room for bestsellers and titles that Oprah likes. I've got some pretty strong libertarian tendencies, but I've always had a soft spot for public libraries. If they merely become government-run versions of what the private sector delivers so efficiently nowadays—the ability to purchase just about any book ever printed, and often at a very good price if you're willing to buy from a secondhand seller—then maybe we don't really need them anymore.

Since when do bookstores allow you to check out books for no fee, finish them, and bring them back? That's the primary difference between libraries and bookstores -- they make reading cheap, if not free. As it happens, John and I work at magazines. Books magically flow into our offices, and those that don't can be freely ordered from the kind elves staffing publisher publicity departments. But for those whose employment (or lack thereof) eschews such perks, $25.95 (or a bit over $20 on Amazon, once shipping is included) for Special Topics in Calamity Physics is steep. Libraries make it less so. That's their function: Not to serve as a dusty repository of the classics, but to economically democratize the world of letters.

So far as the Fairfax branches go, I'm all for keeping the hits of yesteryear available, but they are, I''ll remind John, delivered fairly efficiently by the private sector, and for dirt-cheap if you're willing to go secondhand. The Education of Henry Adams, one of the removed classics, is available for $1.44 on Amazon -- $13.05 cheaper than the cheapest copy of Special Topics. So it would seem the libraries could do more good by making the pricier, contemporary novels widely available, rather than duplicating the inexpensive back catalogues of the private sector. Indeed, it seems oddly un-libertarian to demand that libraries paternalistically ignore market pressures and consumer preferences in order to stock the titles that educated elites have deemed "classics." Nothing against the classics, of course, but it would certainly seem that in the age of Amazon and online used retailers, libraries should ensure their stock hews as close to the preferences of their users as possible.

January 2, 2007 in Books | Permalink


Speaking as an (academic) librarian... Shelf space is at a premium at most libraries; remember, every book in basically requires that another book be removed.

At the same time, "popular reading" does not generally compete with the classics for shelf space, because they're shelved separately. What's happening, I guess, is that ex-bestsellers are being kept instead of the classics.

I should also point out that most of the "classics" are available for free online via Project Gutenberg, Bartleby, etc.

Posted by: Mac | Jan 2, 2007 3:00:28 PM

Well if you don't have a computer or $1.98 plus shipping and a credit card to order, I guess your just screwed!!!

It's easy to say "its cheaper online" when you are online and have a credit card and some discretionary income. As usual, the poor get screwed once again.

Posted by: Doubting Thomas | Jan 2, 2007 3:30:56 PM

Speaking for myself, I'm more likely to use the library for denser nonfiction, academic texts, etc., less because of the relative purchase prices, but because I'm far less certain I want to own some of those texts until I've had a chance to look them over... and brick-and-mortar stores are even less likely to have some of them available than the library. I like having access to older or more challenging stuff-- classics are less of an issue, because they are available online for free and there are cheap paperbacks readily available-- without having to shop. I probably never would have bothered to put Adam Smith on my wish list, but I did put him on reserve at the library.

Posted by: latts | Jan 2, 2007 3:38:30 PM

Let me get this straight, DT... The poor are screwed because the library is giving them books that people want to read rather that books they want people to read but people don't?

And if you hadn't noticed, libraries have internet access now and have for some time. Also, as I should have pointed out, in a large metropolitan system some library is likely to have any book you want, and if none does there's interlibrary loan. Oh, and the books the libraries discard will be available for purchase for a dime. Most people can swing that.

Posted by: Mac | Jan 2, 2007 3:45:49 PM

As usual, the poor get screwed once again.

Of course they do. If they didn't, no one would mind being poor and no one would strive for wealth....it would be meaningless.

The lesson is plan not to be poor.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Jan 2, 2007 4:01:30 PM

Quickly, Wadsworth! Fetch Frederick his monocle!

Posted by: August J. Pollak | Jan 2, 2007 4:13:11 PM

"Special Topics in Calamity Physics"

Which I just read, after checking it out from the library . . .

A pretty good novel, but not one I'd pay an enormous sum to own . . .

Posted by: rea | Jan 2, 2007 4:39:47 PM

ha ha!! that was funny, august j. pollak!!!
by the way, happy new year, fred!

Posted by: jacqueline | Jan 2, 2007 5:24:49 PM

I noticed recently on Amazon a bunch of preposterously cheap used copies, where the sellers noted that they have library markings, but are otherwise in good condition.

And so the long-tail moves from the public library onto Amazon.

Well, fine. But what happens when these copies disappear into private hands. Then what?

Posted by: Mickeleh | Jan 2, 2007 5:26:26 PM

The key question, I think, is whether or not Libraries should be in the business of declaring what books are more worth reading than others or whether their obligation rests with providing the public with what it wants. Obviously there will be some of each. One role of the public library is to make available the books that are important enough that people want to read them but which they aren't willing to buy -- they're actually a correction for a missing market. On the other hand, that role has to be balanced with the goal of making available to the public what ever books the public wants to read. A given library could stock only "important classics" or only pulp romance novels, but the optimal solution is to be somewhere in between, and the trick is finding the balance. Making the decision on the basis of what's actually being read seems like as reasonable a way as any to make those decisions.

One of the tenets of _conservative_ libertarianism often seems to me to be "let the market sort it out, but when the market doesn't do what I personally want it to do we should bludgeon the 'bad actors' into doing what I want them to do so that the market does what I want it to do." Elitist attitudes are good at confusing market failure with moral failure.

Posted by: Galen H. Brown | Jan 2, 2007 6:25:20 PM

I don't watch "Oprah," but I hear about her. I seem to remember some titles from authors like Faulkner on her reading list.

Posted by: Brian | Jan 2, 2007 7:00:06 PM

I love how people like Freddy here and the Cornerites sneer that we are "wannabe Europeans", and in the next breath offer a rousing defense of "the classics", which were almost without exception produced by ... Europeans.

Posted by: Thlayli | Jan 2, 2007 7:13:39 PM

I use interlibrary loan all the time. All libraries have it. So for a branch to sell a classic doesn't mean that book is no longer available to library patrons. So his complaint is without merit. Of course.

Posted by: RWB | Jan 2, 2007 7:15:46 PM

I support what the PL (public library) is doing in general, if I got the context correctly, but there have been some misunderstandings and distortions by others, (not by Ezra here) in the past.

More l8tr..just checkin' in, and cookin' dinner at same time.

Posted by: benny05 | Jan 2, 2007 7:30:39 PM

the solution to most of the complaints here is simple: libraries should be funded (by the gov't, with taxation monies generated from real, fair taxation of large corporations like amazon) to set up special electronic projects, in which the lesser known, less popular "classics" are stored, and anyone can access them via a computer. those computers should be connected to printers, for those poor folks with out them, income test if you need it, but let those without the 1.98$ and/or computer at home print out the copies. keep untold millions of lesser known books on computer, and you'll all the shelf space you need for the latest rowling book.

i have librarian family members who work in electronic book projects for libraries. you down load a book onto your computer or ipod via some connection at home or at the libarary, and it's good for a specific amount of time. the future is in not being so stupid about technology. just today i was reading about 100$ PCs coming on the market. there should be a "make america #1 in technology bill" which, among other things, computerizes places like libraries, makes wifi available for free in most/all communities, and gives tax breaks or free computers to those who can't afford them.

everyone wins. even you conservatives and libertarians. a more informed, information and technology savvy population is one that needs fewer of your taxdollars to survive.

Posted by: chicago dyke | Jan 2, 2007 8:14:29 PM

I've replaced many of mine, swallowed up by Katrina, at thrift stores where paperback versions, some unread, cost as little as a quarter. Didn't even need my credit card.

Posted by: peggy | Jan 2, 2007 8:49:03 PM

Clarification: Fairfax County isn't dumping classics. Here's a statement from the Fairfax County library director: "Recent media reports have misled readers to believe that we’ve eliminated all copies of classic titles from our branches. This could not be further from the truth...Because there’s a growing demand for more and more books in more and more formats, we have to balance the need to offer classic literature, and satisfy public demand, with the physical limitations of our finite shelf space...Therefore we have to make difficult decisions about what items to keep in our collection." In fact, many of the authors cited in the Washington Post's article, "Hello, Grisham -- So Long, Hemingway?", like, um, Hemingway, are not being discarded.

Motive: Circulation, or how many books are checked out, is a library's most important statistic. State and local funding for a library is determined based on circulation, and it is one of the primary success metrics used to determine the efficacy of a library's programs or leaders. If a library isn't moving materials, they don't get the public's money, which seems like a fair bargain.

Reality: Public libraries have always had to had to balance cost vs. access. They still help any patron get the right information, in the right format, for free or low cost. For example, Fairfax provides free, online access to jillions of magazine articles, research reports, and reference databases. They offer Interlibrary Loan, and even a chat-based reference service. Fairfax, and 4,000 other public libraries across the country lets you download--for free-- audio books, eBooks, videos, and albums. Your own public library probably offers all of these services, too. Question is, when was the last time you entered your public library's website or branch?

Sad Reality: The answer is probably, not for a long time. Use statistics show that library patrons are very much senior citizens, the poor, and families with young kids, and that as the economy slows, library use increases proportionately. The tradeoffs being made by Fairfax, and most other public libraries are just indicators of how America is changing. Demographic and economic change means less space for 3rd-string classics to make room for more English as a second language materials,large-print books, DVDs, free Internet terminals, or removing shelving all together to make way for an expanded Children's story room.

Amazing Fact: You can still get anything in print, or out of it, from your library, online or on paper. Seriously. Call your PL's reference desk and ask a real person for help with virtually any information request. It's so cool!

However, for all of you young, affluent, no-kid having, broadband at home persons with plenty of leisure time who visit the library to pick up a classic because you happened to be nearby or needed to use the bathroom--the public library is doing its best for you, but there are other services that are getting a bigger piece of a shrinking library budget pie.

Disclosure: I am a librarian.

Posted by: invincible_sword_goddess | Jan 2, 2007 9:31:35 PM

Many new books are only available in hardcover, and thus the ones which are the most expensive. This makes the library the best deal in town if you want to read new books. Even if you don't have internet access and a credit card, there are plenty of brick-and-mortar used bookstores that people still avail themselves of.

Posted by: Constantine | Jan 2, 2007 9:48:43 PM

"I've replaced many of mine, swallowed up by Katrina, at thrift stores where paperback versions, some unread, cost as little as a quarter. Didn't even need my credit card."

That's the beauty of a copyright expiring, as one of my high school English teachers said. It's great that outlets like Dover Classics sells some books for a dollar, because that allows students to take notes directly on the page.

Posted by: Brian | Jan 2, 2007 10:36:43 PM

Another librarian here.

Interlibrary loan can get you almost any book you want. Problem solved.

And yes, libraries must strive for balance in the collection, a balance that will hopefully fulfill the wants and needs of their community.

I work in a community college library. I impress upon all the freshman I talk to how lucky they are to even have access to the world's information -- both old AND new -- in the form of freely available books from the dozen or so academic libraries + the public library system and the nominal library fee they pay to help us purchase databases for articles, reference material and online ebooks.

Everyone shares equally. Everyone has equal access. What a concept.

Posted by: san antone rose | Jan 2, 2007 11:07:16 PM

I see public internet access as an emerging role of public libraries. The local system is very crowded with people using the library computers.

Posted by: Sandals | Jan 2, 2007 11:08:13 PM

Are public libraries supposed to repositories of the best that has been thought and said, or are they supposed to compete with bookstores for customers?

No. Public libraries provide books that people want to read. While National Review types (who, as Ezra notes, receive piles of review copies from Wingnut Welfare Press and other non-vanity publishers) may consider $10 for a book the cost of two triple-shot vanilla lattes, for someone with not much money, that's a lot of money.

I have absolutely no problem with public libraries filling their shelves with romances and potboilers and whatnot, because there'll still be room for good stuff (i.e. not the Regnery catalogue).

That's the beauty of a copyright expiring, as one of my high school English teachers said.

Indeed, it was the 1760-odd ruling against perpetual copyright that allowed the first collections of 'classics' to appear, usually with introductions by contemporary worthies that the publisher could use as a selling point and a source of copyright.

Anyway, as the Manic Street Preachers noted, 'libraries gave us power'. Working class kids with voracious reading habits will consume the contents of public libraries by the shelf, regardless of quality. And that's a damn good thing.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jan 2, 2007 11:42:52 PM

Many new books are only available in hardcover, and thus the ones which are the most expensive.

Is it me, or is there now a longer lead time these days before a paperback edition appears? As much as I love hardbacks, I'm not going to clog my shelves with hardback editions of books with temporary interest, and I don't see any reason not to release simultaneous editions other than for purposes of revision.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jan 2, 2007 11:47:09 PM

Books that "people want to read" - that's called entertainment. I understand why my tax dollars should pay for Faulkner, Darwin, the Encyclopedia Britannica - that's education or close to it. But why should I pay for people to read John Grisham or Tim LaHay or Ann Coulter? If people want Left Behind they can pay for it themselves. Let them establish private lending libraries where they can borrow a best seller for a buck a week. I am a heavy library user myself, but my God, I would rather have all the public libraries closed down if they are going to be converted into free versions of airport book counters.

Posted by: JR | Jan 3, 2007 12:01:54 AM

The basic dilemma of libraries is how to meet these with a limited budget.

If you don't like the result, propose a better way or raise the budget.

And, no, electronic libraries will not solve it - as technology looks at the moment, they'll be a supplement, not a substitute.

So, on the specific issue, what the library has to do is to raise circulation (i.e. stock books people want to get out) while ensuring that anyone who needs a classic can get it. Which is where interlibrary loan and consortia come in (as invincible_sword_goddess) has noted.

Posted by: Phoenician in a time of Romans | Jan 3, 2007 12:03:03 AM

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