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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Do Public Libraries No Longer Need Books?

With the growth of ebooks there is a lot of talk about how it will impact the surviavl of brick and mortar stores, the fate of printed books, and how individual authors will publish direcrtly to consumers and skip the publisher as a gatekeeping middleman. But there is another insitution under siege: the public library.

One would think there will always be a need for libraries, especially as the number of bookstores is dwindling. Libraries bring the reading community together and help educate children, studemts, seniors and people of all ages, especially those of a lower economic class. However, if /I were to judge the actions of my neighborhood library, I would have to wonder whether libraries will survive.

I recently went with my son to the library and brought five shopping bags worth of books. There were maybe 150 -200 books, mostly children's books, that were in excellent condition. I couldn't wait to show my seven-year-old son that donating items of value helps the community and is appreciated. Instead, I was met by a less-than-excited library worker who blurted out, upon seeing me, "Oh, we don't normally take that many books. Only one bag per family."

I was expecting a "thanks" and a smile.

When she saw my look of frustration and confusion she hurriedly said, "OK, just put them over there in that room. We don't normally do this."

Now I was placed in the position of having to thank her for making this excpetion to a ridiculous rule. But I instead asked her why the library was turning down resources it seems to be in need of.

"We lack the space" she shot back.

They have plenty of space. I am not an architect or a librarian engineer, but believe me, there were plenty of places to store these books, at least for the short-term. Most libraries either use the books that are donated to them, or they sell them (to raise money for the reosurces and services they are in need of), or ship them to a nearby library in greater need. The books I gave her, even if they were sold off for 50 cents each, would net them about $75 -$100. Couldn't they find a way to make sure they accept the larger donations of others?

Otherwise, what inevitably happens, is people stop donating to them altogether, or they bring fewer books. In either case, that means less money for the library. How can that be a smart policy?

I want to see libraries thrive. In a recession with limited budgets given to libraries -- as well as the challenge posed by the digital wolrd -- libraries will need to navigate in a smart way or they may just perish.

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer, the nation’s largest book promoter. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person.


  1. Hi, Brian. Excellent post!

    I'm glad you persisted with the librarians. But what happened at your local library is still unfortunate, since PAPER books can be especially good for young children, who enjoy flipping the pages and being read to from them. I can see awesome possibilities for appropriately created and used digital books for toddlers and parents, but let's not shun paper.

    If nothing else, your local librarians should be giving away the donated books to low-income families, not just loaning them out. Many and perhaps most of the younger children in poverty live in bookless households. I hope you'll ask the librarians what they think of "give away" – why aren't they doing this? Which public library system are you writing about?

    That said, e-books are the future, given their economies and their accessibility in all senses of the word. For example, vision-impaired senior citizens, as well as children and others with learning disabilities, can vary the sizes of the fonts and otherwise optimize the reading experience. And, of course, e-books are infinitely more searchable than the traditional variety. The technology is hardly perfect, but it's going to get better and better.

    For more thoughts on digital libraries for all of America, not just the academic and economic elites, see, which advocates well-stocked national digital libraries, with fair compensation for creators. In particular, check out the "Writings" page linking to relevant articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere.

    David Rothman
    Founder and editor-publisher
    (And a former poverty beat reporter
    and a brother of a veteran teacher)

  2. Does you library have another drop-off point for donations; I know ours does. As far as digital books and libraries, I think that bookworms who buy books have adopted digital technology, but the casual reader who reads when s/he has to, or who might read a book or two a year? I'm not so sure. Yes, there are digital apps for computers and tablets but is that what the average library patron wants?

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