How can libraries survive? Apparently better than bookstores

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Not long ago, I noticed two articles on the same page of the local Sunday news paper (News & Record, April 17, 2011, p. H6). The headline above the fold asked Can bookstores survive? Directly underneath that article appeared one titled Library piling up e-books.

While I make no claim that the juxtaposition of those two headlines completely answers the question in libraries’ favor, it does point out yet another way that libraries work to keep up with new social and technological trends. And yet some people have been trying to write off libraries for years. Among the falsehoods that have not yet been given a proper burial are “books are obsolete” (a double falsehood, assuming as it does that libraries only warehouse books) and “everything’s available online” (there’s not enough money in the world to make that true, and much online information is so expensive only libraries can afford to subscribe).

As to book stores, a generation ago Crown Books (now Books a Million) successfully challenged the publishers’ right to set the prices that all stores had to charge. Soon enough, it and other large chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders pretty much put independent bookstores out of business. How could a chain like, for instance, Kroch’s and Brentano’s, once the largest privately owned chain of bookstores in the US with 22 stores in the Chicago area, compete with national chains of hundreds of stores that could afford to undercut their prices. It went out of business in 1995.

Not long afterward, came along. It took years for it to reach the dominant position it has today. Barnes & Noble has also established a large online presence. There are even large online stores, such as Book Closeouts, dedicated entirely to overstocks and recently out-of-print titles, offering discounts of at least 50% on everything. Borders, with no online store of its own, has recently closed a third of its stores and filed for bankruptcy protection. It remains to be seen if it can survive at all.

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Meanwhile, the demise of the chains seems to be opening a door for independent booksellers to make a comeback and offer the kind of personal service the older indies took pride in and the chains never attempted. Most of the successful bookstores I have any personal experience with sell mostly used books, but there seems to be no reason for them not to expand into new books and other products as the chains shrink in their influence.

Meanwhile, libraries are beginning to buy e-books, and in the process, creating virtual branch libraries. Patrons can borrow books from the library using their e-reader and have no need to visit a brick and mortar library to do it. Because most libraries are now part of regional and/or state library systems, they can enjoy some of the same economies of scale as large chain stores, yet with the right level of membership, they can still make their books available only to patrons who hold that library’s library card.

Why, if it is possible to buy e-books easily and not have to find somewhere to put them, would patrons borrow them from the library? Many of the same reasons people have always borrowed from the library instead of purchasing: Why buy something you can borrow for free if you don’t know in advance you’ll like it? Why buy something that you really need at the moment, but won’t need long-term? Even e-book readers don’t have unlimited space. Unless someone is extremely good at tagging, finding anything in particular among hundreds of titles on an e-reader will be much more challenging than finding it using the library’s catalog, as clunky as it may seem.

Neither bookstores nor libraries can long survive if they continue to do only what they have always done. Except, of course, one thing libraries have always done is adapt to changing conditions.

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