Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Gone to the library

While everyone else bemoans the decline of the printed book, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the authors of Freakonomics, point out that public libraries are seeing double-digit increases in circulation and new card requests. “As consumer spending recedes in the face of the credit crisis,” they wonder, “will libraries become more popular than shopping malls as a destination?”

I have a somewhat different question—one that has troubled me for some time. If library patrons are checking out a newly published book instead of buying it, and if public libraries are funded by the government, isn’t the time fast arriving when the government both subsidizes the market for new books and severely limits it? Instead of twenty library patrons going to Barnes & Noble or logging on to Amazon and buying twenty copies of Goldengrove, they go to the local branch and get on a waiting list for the library’s one copy. Francine Prose is denied nineteen sales, although she is guaranteed at least one—and twenty readers for her next novel, if they liked this one. Or do libraries create readers for titles they might otherwise never have heard of? And customers, then, for later books by the same author? I wish the Freakonomics boys had thought to ask about, and to investigate, the economic effect of public libraries on new book sales.

But this trend also raises the question of what public libraries are for. As John J. Miller wrote two years ago in the Wall Street Journal, public libraries are becoming “ruthless” (a librarian’s word) in weeding out books that do not circulate widely. These include “classics” like The Mayor of Casterbridge or The Sound and the Fury that get newspapers worked up, but some copies of those books will always be around. I’d be more worried about the sort of titles that end up at the Neglected Books Page. Once a library has weeded them from its collection, and in an ethically dubious act, makes extra money by selling off its copies, where will they be found? If public libraries do not exist to preserve a cultural heritage, why are they being subsidized by the public? Why should the government support a competitor to Barnes & Noble and Amazon?


Anonymous said...

Well if libraries only collected best sellers you might have a point about competing against B&N or Borders.

But I assume that you realize that libraries do more than that.

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

I am one of those people who always has multiple books out or on hold at the library.

so I can say from experience that the library is not a realistic way to read most NEW fiction. If the book receives even mildly positive reviews - the waiting list will be weeks or months long (at least in the Chicago Public Library system).

I've given in and purchased at least 7 books that I had intended only to check out over the past 2 months for this VERY reason.

but - if a book is new and fairly obscure, you can get it with no problem - which has saved me probably thousands upon thousands of dollars (that I didn't have to spend anyway) over the past few years.

and Anonymous has a point. Most people don't use the library for best sellers - it's impractical. I can only speak to my own preferences, but most of my selections aren't even new fiction.

Library didn't kill the Amazon star... yet.