Friday, February 5th, 2010

Why are you for killing libraries?

Publishing idea-man Mike Shatzkin recently wrote a provocative blog post, “Why are you for killing bookstores?

He lays out the uncomfortable facts:

“Although there are probably few people reading this blog who expect bookstores to be around in 15 or 20 years (and those who do will undoubtedly leave a comment!), there are many who would like to keep them around as long as possible. There is a magic to being in a building surrounded by 40,000, 60,000, 100,000 different books. Bookstores are inherently community centers. They make possible the wide dissemination and promotion of great writing. They enable people to see heavily-illustrated books before they purchase them.

But have you thought about this? If you are for bookstores lasting as long as possible, you want to slow down the uptake of ebooks.”

He goes on to explain the broad dynamics of the situation—the way Amazon, the big physical retailers and publishing look at the future, and which side they’re on—faster ebooks or not. It’s a stimulating read. And a depressing one.

Particularly depressing for me is the fact that Shatzkin never mentions libraries. (As one commenter on his post wrote, “Those buildings with 1000s of books that you speak so fondly of are called libraries.”) It’s not his fault, really. It’s a short blog post. But I think it shows the extent of the problem for libraries. When a top industry analyst looks at the book world, libraries don’t figure very prominently. There is a war going on, and libraries are going to be collateral damage.

They don’t deserve it. US libraries circulated some 2.1 billion books last year, compared to 3.1 billion books sold. But they don’t have much of a profile in the commercial world.(1) Being responsible for something like 39% of reading, bookstores only are about 4% of book sales.(2)

The difference is, of course, that libraries don’t pay every time they circulate a book. Under the First Sale doctrine—the idea that you, well, own the things you own—libraries can pay once, and lend a book out multiple times.

Ebooks change this. As ebooks advance, libraries are going to lose their “First Sale” advantage. Publishers will never allow a library to “own” an ebook absolutely, just as consumers don’t really own their ebooks. Libraries are going to be renting them, in fact or in effect, and they’re going to paying a lot more to do it. They’re going to be paying for the use they get out of them, not spending what consumers spend and getting more use. (I’ve written on the economics here before, so check that out first if you disagree with me.)

As the logic takes hold, libraries will be transformed into “simple” book-subsidy machines, not the special, advantaged ones they are now. That means they’re either be forced to subscribe to fewer books, invest a lot more in their holdings or, for public libraries, convince voters to give them a lot more money. Those are bad options.

Other factors exacerbate the problem. Libraries are losing the “aggregation advantage.” When every book is available anywhere, why go to the library to get it? And piracy hurts. Digitization has cut the music industry in half in the last decade, and there’s no reason to believe books will become the first digital medium to avoid it. When you can not only get a book anywhere, but get it for free, why go to the library?

There are some reasons. Unlike bookstores, of course, libraries do other solid, valuable things. They employ librarians, who help you find and understand things. They provide free internet access. They hold story times and author readings. They lend out other things, although, excepting tools and people, digitization is going to wipe those markets out too.(3) And they’re funded indirectly. Bookstores monetize their community value—whether it’s an author reading or just the value of meeting cool people—by selling valuable objects. They create more value than they can realize. Public libraries, by contrast, monetize through government taxation, which is to say by periodically asking voters if they value them. As of now, despite some budgetary cuts, voters mostly do.

But, overall, I think libraries are headed in the same direction as bookstores and in obedience to the same logic—falling in tandem with the rise of ebooks. If they survive, it’ll be for everything else they offer and so, for me at least, apart from the librarians, whose value won’t fall, ebook libraries won’t be full-fledged libraries anymore.

Shatzkin concludes:

“I don’t think anybody would want to be accused of being in favor of killing bookstores faster. And very few of us would be comfortable having it said we were trying to slow down the progress of digital technology, strategizing to slow down ebook uptake. But you are for one or the other, unless you don’t have any opinion at all.”

Isn’t the same thing true for libraries and ebooks?

Update 1: If you want to reply, you can leave a comment, but I also started a topic in Talk about the topic.

Well, that’s about the most depressing thing I’ve written. I hope I’m wrong. And I even have some hopeful, positive things to say too. But I’ll save them for another day.

1. These numbers are all very wiggly. Eric Hellman, formerly of OCLC, has been working on them for a while. Start with this, this and this.
2. As founder of LibraryThing, which doesn’t cede the term “library” to institution collections of books alone, I need to mention that “lending” isn’t just an institutional library phenomenon. Regular people lend and share books too, probably in numbers to rival libraries. That phenomenon will be largely ended by ebook DRM—and revived by piracy.
3. It’s actually digitization plus virtualization. CDs are digital, but they’re also physical objects, so libraries can own them for real. When CDs are gone—and they’re going—libraries will have to contract with digital music services. The dynamics are similar to the ebook dynamics.

Labels: ebooks


  1. Zac says:

    Tim: have you read Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge? It's got an interesting take on possible technology developments for the next 15 years, with very direct application to libraries in one case. The book is well worth reading, and I think that particular detail is perhaps the most believable of all the tech in the book.

  2. dweller says:

    We're going through this process of change here where I work in the UK in central London. Everything is being geared for the inevitable onslaught and uptake of e-books.

    My major argument against reduction of books on the shelves (especially non-fiction sections which seem to be treated with the most disdain by withdrawl-happy librarians)is that by displaying a large variety of books in one place one can end up picking up books one had no intention of reading. Amazon has its lists and "other people also liked" sections but they don't lead people to that book that "other people didn't like" which may be the book that blows your mind. Random discovery will be gone for good. Also libraries often stock older books that are out of print. E-book version of out of prints may well be published, but there will be gems lost along the way. I see it happen more and more as the librarians trawl away truly important historical books and sell them on the book sale for 50p. Also these older books will not be pumped and promoted on the front pages of the e-book stores/catalogues. In a library they are democratically present side by side with the others (apart from a small new book section which doesn't dominate reader choice).

    Anyway I'm lying here in bed with flu or (libraryitis)I hope my post was of interest.

  3. James Weinheimer says:

    I think it would be naive to believe that the ebook will not have much of an effect on either bookstores or libraries, once there is an ebook reader the equivalent of the Ipod, which will probably happen sooner rather than later.

    I am a librarian, and although I love books, I look forward to the future. But the future holds danger. I compare the situation of libraries to the newspaper world, where journalists are in danger of losing everything, in a similar way librarians are faced with the same danger.

    But this is where librarians can learn from the journalists. There is general agreement that journalists are still needed. Many of them are now beginning to differentiate the field of "journalism" from "working for a newspaper." Since newspapers are in real danger, does that mean that the field of journalism is too? How can someone survive as a journalist without having to work for a newspaper? Some are deciding that it may be possible.

    In the same way, there is the field of librarianship with our ethics and values, our skills and methods, and this differs from the tasks that we have of managing a physical collection. If libraries do not survive, or remain only as museums of "physical curiosities" (which is a possibility) does it mean that it is also the death knell for librarianship as a field? I don't think so, that is, if librarians reorient themselves.

    I think that librarians and journalists can survive and even thrive in the new environment, but I don't know if newspapers and libraries will survive. If not, it will be a sad time, indeed.

    Still, it should be a wild ride for everybody!

  4. Alexander Gieg says:

    Libraries might print once a customer-priced purchased ebook then delete the file and go lending this printed version. Same for music: burn it to a CD-R, delete the file, and go lending the CD-R. Once the copy is destroyed, repeat.

    This will of course lead to some fierce legal battles, specially if DRMed ebooks include restrictions on printing (which, thanks to piracy, music doesn't anymore). But it's a battle worth fighting. The first sale doctrine will only disappear once people stop fighting tooth and nail to preserve it.

  5. dweller says:

    "Still, it should be a wild ride for everybody!"

    I just hope that the guys who come into my library living in hostel accommodation carrying their things in a big bag for fear of it being stolen in the hostel. These people who are trying to self-educate and improve their chances in life. I hope these people will have shiny e-readers to use. There are many people who use libraries in their current form who will be left behind if we fail to consider that we are not all in the lucky position of access to paid for books.
    Hopefully technology to read these books can be loaned to people with low incomes, and if they become very cheap then people of no fixed abode.
    Before we had public libraries there was a divide between those with access to knowledge and those without.
    It would be a tragedy if we allowed books to become part of the "digital divide".

  6. GirlfromIpanema says:

    I have been whingeing about our local library not even having the funds to bring their OPAC online (and to buy english-language books other than the cheap thriller and chick-lit stuff). But it seems that I might be lucky. Nary an e-book to be seen.

  7. dweller says:


    We don't have any e-books here yet. But our library service leader is arranging their introduction. The talk behind the scenes is all about the future and e-books. Also one of my line managers sees nothing wrong in the fiction section consisting of nothing but best selling airport novels. Cheap and popular rules I fear for cash strapped libraries run by those who don't really understand what they are throwing away.

  8. Per Starbäck says:

    Digitization may have cut the recording industry in half, but there is more to the music industry than that. It has been instructive to compare similar figures of the downfall of the recording industry with a report by Daniel Johansson where he adds the collecting societies, the record labels, and the live promoters, and it turns out that seen in this way the music industry revenues in Sweden has been pretty much constant 2000–2008. (I don't know of similar inquiries for other countries.)

    Similarly I don't think digitization will cut the "book industry" as a whole in half, but certainly it is also changing because of it.

  9. Melissa says:

    Alexander Gieg:

    While the battle may be worth fighting, libraries would have to band together to do it, since no individual library can afford the kind of legal battles that, say, Google can take part in. In order to band together, libraries would also have to have to the support of the people who fund them – with budgets being cut all over the place and some short-sighted people doubting the need for libraries (and people not even remembering that libraries exist in the first place, or perhaps naively assuming that they are simply a fixture in society that will magically be around forever), can libraries really expect the kind of backing they'd need for prolonged, incredibly expensive legal battles?

  10. Mary Koegel says:

    I appreciate this as a response to bookstores allegedly (and, in some cases, a reality) dying out. It seems every day, I am caught up in some argument regarding whether or not libraries & archives, or librarians & archivists will become irrelevant (not so much for the sake of my own chosen career path, but I truly believe that neither will fade out in our lifetimes, if ever, no matter how overlooked we may be at times).

    What I find most curious – in listservs, articles, and even here – it seems a line is drawn between a bookstore & a library. Even in movies you see a customer in a store browsing a book when the owner yells "this is not a library!" But, really, at the roots, those that support the institution & those that run the institutions – are we all that different? To some extent, maybe it's a matter of semantics & degrees? We're all essentially guiding & helping; all selling information, so to speak, just in different manners, and, maybe at different levels.

    Why make the line so wide? Why not band together & support one another? Cause, really, what's a comfy, used bookstore more than just a library that's "renting" books for cash?

  11. Marilynn Byerly says:

    Libraries and ebooks are already coexisting just fine, thank you very much. Many libraries offer ebooks through systems like Overdrive or have their own ebook system.

    Some use the “one book/ one reader” system of check outs. Others have a special deal with the provider or publisher so that they can loan as many books as needed.

    In most cases, the library pays for the ebook once in the same way as they pay for a paper book. The only difference is they can’t resell the ebook, but since ebooks don’t take up limited physical book shelf space, this is not a problem.

    When I researched the future of libraries seven years ago for a seminar on ebooks and libraries for the state librarian association, most of the experts predicted that a library as a physical space should exist for at least another hundred years because of the lack of digitalization of older books, charts, etc.

    With the current rush to scan older book now in progress, I imagine that we can cut that time considerably.

    None of this means that libraries are going to vanish in our lifetimes. It just means the brick and mortar version will have to justify its existence for those cities, universities, etc. who finance them.

    Right now, in some places, politicians are trying to shut down local libraries to cut cost while in other places, the locals are fiercely supportive of their libraries.

    In my town, we have just finished a major renovation of the library building which is used for books, community events, job information, tax help, computer access, storytelling and other events for small kids, etc., etc. They also offer ebooks, audiobook downloads, etc.

    This is in an area of the country with some of the worst unemployment, etc., in the US, but the libraries have proven they deserve their tax dollars.

  12. Barbara says:

    There are projects underway to make it possible to purchase your e-books from independent booksellers and lots of libraries have e-books they can loan even if Kindle is muddled about their TOS.

    So long as libraries a) get what patrons really want and b) don't end up having to invest a lot of resources in something that can be turned off if there's a budget crunch, then there should be no real reason to worry about libraries' future. If it's all full of DRM, privacy-hostile software, and excessive costs … libraries won't waste their money on it.

    I don't see this being an either/or world anytime soon.

    Now I'll actually go read the Shatzkin piece, having dispensed my personal moment of zen.

  13. kath says:

    Our library is planning to add a coffee bar, computers and a play area so kids don't feel like they have to BE QUIET!!!!!!!

    This is horrible. They are turning our library into a playground or something. This, they say is because library use is dropping. Our library system does not let you reserve anything online. The librarians are unpleasant and rude.. and when you do call and rquest a book from another library, they say it is not their job to call and let you know when it is in. If you are number 11 on the list, you have to keep calling to find out if it is there. If you keep calling, they are more and more rude.

    What we need are new librarians and some new books..

    I am so fit to be tied..

  14. Tara says:

    I've honestly never thought about it this way. It's funny because just last year, when I was 12, I would have probably thought about it first, being the conspiracy theorist I was. I guess that just proves how fast things change. Personally I don't really like my library anymore. I've always been a huge reader and it upsets me to walk in and see people everywhere reading my favorite books and HATING them. It's a horribly traumatic experience for me.

    Along with being a reader I'm also a dreamer and a hopeFUL romantic – a dangerous combination at best. So I spend everyday I can in every place with books. Everything from the musty old rare books room to my, equally musty but less dusty, book-piled bedroom to the crisp air-conditioned Borders down the street. I even stop there everyday after school with my friends, just so we can smell the fresh, new pages.

    I'm sure this whole thing is terribly contradicting but the point I had in mind was lost somewhere and I guess my new one is that OF COURSE the libraries are next. OF COURSE someone is probably gonna come far too soon to my town and decide that the location of my library would be a perfect place for his new office building. OF COURSE they're gonna try… but I'M not gonna let them. Ask anyone and they'll tell you; OF COURSE she's stubborn enough to do it.

  15. Eric Rumsey says:

    This is the link to James Weinheimer's comment, but it goes to the top of the page – Bummer. …

  16. Jenn says:

    I'm a library science grad student and this topic has been a highly discussed one in our classes, so I thought I'd offer my own two cents.

    I honestly don't see ebooks being the death of libraries, because libraries today are so much more than just books. They have begun to reinvent themselves and their purpose in order to stay relevant and valuable to the community they serve.

    While libraries are a great place to find books of all kinds (including ebooks and playaways), they are also a place to join a book discussion, or learn how to knit, or enjoy a storytelling session with your pre-schooler. They are a place where a community can come together.

    Additionally, the librarians themselves are a valuable resource, unless you have crotchety, unhelpful ones like Kath seems to. They can help you find a great new book to read or how to search for information more productively.

    They can even teach you how to use the very technology that many say will take over the need for libraries and librarians. I work at a small community college library which gets many older, non-traditional students. They often come into the library not even knowing which program to use to type papers, let alone how to search for the information necessary to write them. This technology is worthless to them unless they have someone to teach them how to use it, like a librarian.

    I think libraries will continue to be useful and relevant for some time, but only if communities are willing to fight for them to stay open.

  17. Anonymous says:

    I absolutely love my library and would miss it terribly. You can request online and are emailed when the book is in. They even email you a day before a book is due. I can't afford to buy all the books I read and love seeing all the choices both online and inhouse. I use the computer constantly both at home and at work but prefer fictional reading on a actual book. I would hate not having that choice.

  18. Katie-Rose Repp says:

    Another iSchooler checking in. For my Masters Paper, I actually interviewed an archivist today on a very similar topic, how special collections are going to pull off the digital challenge. What I've observed in prepping this paper and in general is that the smart libraries and cultural institutions are going to co-opt new technologies where appropriate, and challenge them where they threaten our core missions. The pessimist in me wonders how many will fall into this category and how many will fail to remain relevant in the eyes of their designated communities.

  19. Daniel deStefano says:

    If libraries must offer ebooks that patrons pay to read instead of lending them for free, then the idea of the free public library is a dead issue, and the public library becomes a taxpayer-subsidized bookstore! As for the ideal of an enlightened electorate living in a democratic society (that's the mission of the free public library), that becomes obsolete with no free access to reading (or other) materials. Perhaps government will pay for all of these e-reads, and access will remain free of direct cost. Would that be another economic bail-out?

  20. Ray McIntyre says:

    Frankly, I think that libraries must not be allowed to die. Inevitably the rise of the ebook enables and empowers those with the resources to buy them. They must remain for those who are too poor, those who society has allowed to slip through it's cracks and those who are 'technologically challenged.

  21. Library Hag says:

    The library system I work for does not charge for e-book use. We absorb all the costs. And the e-books we have can be read on computers, handheld devices, sony readers and the Nook. With many of the books though, we do not have the instant gratification of buying a book for the Kindle or the Nook since the patron often has to wait in a hold queue. My concern is that Amazon will come up with a Netflix sort of plan where you pay a fixed amount to borrow books. Now that you don't even have to buy a Kindle (Amazon has a free PC app with Mac on the way) I can see this as a real threat to libraries. Heck, I would be interested if I did not have to buy everything I downloaded.

  22. Spottyblaket says:

    I'm a librarian myself. The way ebooks are to work in the UK is that they are downloaded for a short period of time–and unless they are renewed, they then expire after a certain amount of days. This will stop being being late with their books. While I don't mind e books, I believe people should be given the choice. Reading ebooks comes with safety issues, like RSI and screen glare. For older readers who feel alienated and scared of new technology it seems hardly fair.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Recently I learned that the Free Library of Philadelphia obtains (maybe rents) many of its new books from a book service, and doesn't buy them at all. I suppose this means less labor for the librarians, but I wonder how many best sellers or political books are returned to the service after circulation declines, to be replaced by newer books.

    On the other hand, a service might be the solution to the ebook problem, provided the economics work out.

  24. Georgeanne says:

    I am also a librarian and have been in the public school system for many years. It is quite common for public libraries to rent best sellers for a period of time so that the library doesn't have to buy everything that is new but actually has them for their patrons in a timely manner. A lot of Best Sellers are popular for a short period of time until the next set of best sellers comes out.

    The Internet, ebooks, playaways, etc. are wonderful things but I don't think they will completely replace the print book. Kids still like to pick out a book, hold it, stuff it in their pocket, locker, backpack.

    Libraries are constantly evolving or should be changing to stay viable. We are all about information, no matter what format. If libraries don't change, then they may be cast aside. I'am all for change, but not for the sake of just changing. It should be a thoughtful change that can continue to evolve not one that has to be redone over and over again.

  25. Linda says:

    I'll never prefer holding an e-reader in my hand over a book. A nice, crisp hardback or a well-worn paperback is physically comforting and pleasurable to hold. While an e-reader is convenient (believe me, I know, I'm an iPhone addict), I would never feel comfortable with it in the tub or on the beach. I fall asleep with books on my chest all the time; I sure wouldn't want to roll over on my $400 e-reader! There's a reason the book form has lasted so long: it's cheap, easy to use, disposable and it works. I just don't see it going away completely.

  26. KerrieAnne Christian says:

    I'm not sure if reading to a child in bed from an e-book reader is anywhere near the same as that physical book sense.

    If some of these scenarios raised are anywhere near true – then how do we get kids to the love of reading stage in the first place ?

    Could that pose a threat to the e-readers & libraries?

  27. Tori says:

    I go to my local library a lot, mostly to get books for my five year old. The rest of the selection sucks, like the selections at most bookstores. Because libraries have limited physical shelf space, they are mostly forced to buy the most popular books. This just encourages more and more mediocrity in America. Sure I love the IDEA of a real place with real books for community, but it's just an idea. Virtual libraries with virtually everything available won't contribute to that negative feedback loop that tends to decrease available options. Ebook publication means authors and publishers don't have to share profits with printers, distributors, warehouse landlords, and delivery companies; nothing wrong with that. Don't ebook publishers take steps to prevent readers from making pirated copies? Digitization of music may have cut music industry profits in half, but a Kindle book isn't an mp3 file.

  28. Virginia says:

    I suppose I am a strange mix when it comes to this issue. I LOVE libraries and would be endlessly happy to live in one. That said I have not been inside my local library for years having opted to read/buy fewer books than continue to check out books whose pages were glued together with other peoples lunch (or scarier substances) or to reach the climax of a story only to find entire chapters missing. Worse to wait months for a copy of a book only to find they'd failed to notify me it was my turn and passed the book to the next in line. Were I once again to live someplace that took better care of books and readers I would happily use the library. Until then you'll find me at the bookstore…or as I was this past week happily downloading e-books while sitting in my husband's hospital room.

    Libraries provide safe zones and spark the fires of imagination, ones with great librarians help people discover who they are meant to be. Even if I never used one again I'd fight to keep them and happily pay higher taxes to ensure they stayed.

  29. Shui, Jennifer says:

    This is another example of how things are so quickly becoming privatized. Most libraries are more than just a collection for physical books – they are a municipally public space, like a park or a community centre. More and more people are asking: Why should I have to go out and go to the library for a book now that I can download it from the comfort of my home? Just like, why should I go and work out in the park when I could exercise using my Wii in the comfort of my own space? It's really a sad state.

    Personally, I love my mp3 player, but I will continue to be using paper books for the forseeable future because of reasons such as a) even with better lighting technology, I find it better to hold a book and more comfortable for my eyes to read printed words b) I like physically flipping pages and I like the heft of a book as I am lying down on the couch c) I like the creativity of flipping through coffee table books at random

  30. Michael says:

    “Publishers will never allow a library to “own” an ebook absolutely, just as consumers don’t really own their ebooks.”

    This is NOT CORRECT! Currently libraries can purchase ebooks. Every ebook we buy comes with a choice. We can use the vendor as a platform for delivering ebooks to our patrons or we can have the PDF and deliver it ourselves. If we separate from the vendor, a PDF of every ebook comes with us. Their catalog is currently in the hundreds of thousands and the license agreement allows us to deliver to unlimited simultaneous users. The cost is double the print version.

  31. If we are talking of traditional – print materials in library, yes it is loosing ground, simply due to the ubiquitous nature of e-materials. The concept of library is more due to paid content where collective purchase is helping users, as no individual can buy all he wants for their academic, research or even casual reading. Also user-created content and free materials is not all for learners and researcher, they need paid content.

    Relevance of librarians is for assisting users in finding things, and teach users about authenticity of the materials and to license proper paid e-content relevant to their addressed audience.

  32. Ian Witt says:

    If all media goes digital, I will simply stop paying and pirate everything. I want to own my books/movies/games/music and believe DRM is a complete joke. So, if the try to license everything to me, I will simply pirate it for the DRM-stripped files.

  33. Dr.H.S.Siddamallaiah says:

    If all goes digital, finding out piracy is easy. Now majority of e-publishers are controling the content for perpetual income than print media.