If Public Libraries Didn’t Exist, Could You Start One Today?

Raise your hand if you hate libraries.

Even though this blog doesn’t enable me to peer through the screen into your living room (yet), I am guessing there aren’t a lot of raised hands out there. Who could possibly hate libraries?

Here’s one guess: book publishers. I am probably wrong on this, but if you care about books, hear me out.

I had lunch recently with a few publishing folks. One of them had just returned from a national librarians’ conference, where it was her job to sell her line of books to as many librarians as possible. She said that there were as many as 20,000 librarians in attendance; she also said that if she got one big library system, like Chicago’s or New York’s, to buy a book, that could mean a sale of as many as a few hundred copies, since many library branches carry several copies of each book.

That sounds great, doesn’t it?

Well … maybe not. Among writers, there is a very common lament: someone comes up to you at a book signing and says, “Oh, I loved your book so much, I got it from the library and then told all my friends to go to the library too!” And the writer thinks, “Gee, thanks, but why didn’t you buy it?”

The library bought its copy, of course. But let’s say 50 people will read that copy over the life of the book. If the library copy hadn’t existed, surely not all 50 of those people would have bought the book. But imagine that even 10 people would have. That’s 9 additional book sales lost by the writer and the publisher.

There’s another way to look at it, of course. Beyond the copies that libraries themselves buy, you could argue that, in the long run, libraries augment overall book sales along at least a few channels:

1. Libraries help train young people to be readers; when those readers are older, they buy books.

2. Libraries expose readers to works by authors they wouldn’t have otherwise read; readers may then buy other works by the same author, or even the same book to have in their collection.

3. Libraries help foster a general culture of reading; without it, there would be less discussion, criticism, and coverage of books in general, which would result in fewer book sales.

But here’s the point I’m (finally) getting to: if there was no such thing today as the public library and someone like Bill Gates proposed to establish them in cities and towns across the U.S. (much like Andrew Carnegie once did), what would happen?

I am guessing there would be a huge pushback from book publishers. Given the current state of debate about intellectual property, can you imagine modern publishers being willing to sell one copy of a book and then have the owner let an unlimited number of strangers borrow it?

I don’t think so. Perhaps they’d come up with a licensing agreement: the book costs $20 to own, with an additional $2 per year for every year beyond Year 1 it’s in circulation. I’m sure there would be a lot of other potential arrangements. And I am just as sure that, like a lot of systems that evolve over time, the library system is one that, if it were being built from scratch today, would have a very different set of dynamics and economics.


scunning

Don't booksellers essentially foster the same things, though? Barnes and Noble has coffeeshops and chairs scattered throughout their stores, and no one complains about reading those books. They have a better selection than most libraries, too. They also have new authors regularly come to promote their books, and for children, offer both a large children's book selection and summer reading programs/prizes to encourage reading. They also have a flexible return policy. So, why do we even need libraries when booksellers essentially offer the same services?

dilbert69

I recently purchased two copies of Lionel Shriver's new book, "The Post-Birthday World," on line from Powell's because they were signed first editions. I gave one to a friend who's also a Lionel Shriver fan, and I kept the other one on my bookshelf for posterity. When I wanted to read the book, I borrowed it from the library.

spicey

I might browse through a book in a bookshop coffee shop, but I doubt many people read a whole novel there, so it has the positive effect for the publisher of introducing their books to people, without the issue that they won't buy it because they've already read it with their coffee.

M.B.

Hoo-boy! That would be a nasty mess, wouldn't it? Thank goodness libraries are already established!

Orphie

What about the effect of online databases for magazines and journals? Proquest, factiva, ebscohost and the like essentially act as online libraries for hundreds of publications that may be available for free through local library websites. I'm not familiar with the reimbursement structure for a magazine, newspaper, or journal to appear in these databases, but I suspect they still have the net effect of cannibalizing publication sales. Just a curious side note....

Toast1185

Very interesting point. I think the take away from all of this is that despite the fact that not everyone in the community has to buy a book (and then only enjoy it through specific reading glasses, without marking or modifying any of the pages and signing a EULA agreeing that only they may read the book) to enjoy it, the publishing industry is still alive, innovative and well. It's difficult to say how many people have started reading because of the resource that a library offers, or how many people began tracking authors after reading some of their work checked out from the local library, but I believe it is a substantial number. Looks like FUD loses again.

econometrics_ra

"I am guessing there would be a huge pushback from book publishers. Given the current state of debate about intellectual property, can you imagine modern publishers being willing to sell one copy of a book and then have the owner let an unlimited number of strangers borrow it?"

Yes, yes I can imagine it. Blockbuster or Netflix perhaps? Here's an interesting read:

http://www.ischool.berkeley.edu/~hal/Papers/history/history.pdf

Book publishers hated it 200 years ago and the film industry hates it now. Although the music industry was able to weasel around the "first-sale doctrine" they discuss. We could also extend this debate to software. I should be able to reproduce and distribute my copy of Windows Vista as I see fit.

CollegeCat

If those publishers you went to lunch with publish college textbooks I hope that you spit in their food.

I hate to be bitter, but it's really frustrating to be a poor college student and have to go buy a new version of a textbook that has maybe 10 changes in it. That's an extra $50 for every new book they sell. Can you imagine the amount of money they made on astronomy textbooks, and elementary school science books when Pluto was no longer a planet?

egretman

The public good...such a quaint old-fashioned notion really.

.....sniff......

CollegeCat

Another thing. If it weren't for libraries, I'd be broke every semester buying books. So thank God for libraries!

cynic

"...a licensing agreement..."
Do you mean like the Public Lending Right systems in place in 23 countries, including the UK?

jkasbury

Well, perhaps 'scunning' can read an entire book in one sitting at the bookstore but I am a plodder. I doubt the seemingly altruistic Borders would be terribly happy with me after I returned my fifth book in three months.

While I agree with SD and I doubt that few people truly hate libraries, my sense is that they are very under-utilized. Most readers don't head to their public library to pick up the latest NYT best-seller; they head to Borders. I would be very interested to learn what impact the existence of libraries has on book sales. I would guess very little.

The exception to this might be libraries of academic institutions, not public libraries. Students with long reading lists make good use of the reserve section rather than paying exorbitant costs to the campus bookstore. But they also resell their tomes, both to the bookstores and to each other.

eebs

There are 3 sharing networks on the web (it only costs you postage):

http://www.paperbackswap.com/index.php

http://www.shelfari.com/
(shelfari has your book "Freakonomics" as the first one in their opening page)

http://www.bookmooch.com/

I wonder what the publishers think about this. At this point in time, I would think this is not a great concern due to potentially low number of book-swappers.

econometrics_ra

"I hate to be bitter, but it's really frustrating to be a poor college student and have to go buy a new version of a textbook that has maybe 10 changes in it. That's an extra $50 for every new book they sell. Can you imagine the amount of money they made on astronomy textbooks, and elementary school science books when Pluto was no longer a planet?"

The book is worth $50 to you this semester, but its almost totally worthless after you finish the class. They'd be happy to sell it for $50 if you're the only user. But they're also aware you'll resell the book afterwards. Well they'll charge you $100, you'll sell it to the next student for $50. And they've raked in the price of 2 books and only had to print 1. In order to stop that book from circulating 20 times for the next 10 years, releasing new versions restricts the used book market.

Both parties are trying to bleed the other one dry. Don't blame them for playing the game well.

Read more...

scunning

One needs to separate efficiency from equity when thinking about public libraries. Public libraries exist for distributional equity reasons - to provide low-cost books to poor people so as to promote literacy for the sake of so-called public good. But is there any market failure that necessitates a public library? Does the market fail to produce the optimal amount of reading? It seems like most of the benefits of reading are internalized by the individual - in the form of the personal joy from the stories and ideas, and in the form of higher wages from the human capital enhancement. And where there are externalities, it seems it is mainly to families that those externalities lie, and not "society" as much. It'd be interesting to know if the cost of providing "free books" in the form of physical public libraries - which are inputs in a family's production of literacy in their children, at the very least (we bring home books from the library for the kids by the truckload, but neither my wife nor me get our books from the library - I'm still a book collector at heart and buy everything online and at bookstores) - outweigh the private benefits to families.

While Dubner may have a point that publishers would oppose the construction of public libraries (or if not that, maybe they'd rework contracts to take into consideration the lost profits?), there's still the question as to whether (a) public libraries are efficient and (b) in today's society, is the market failing even on the equity front. Even if one doesn't read an entire novel at the bookstore, they still replicate many of the same functions of the library, like house a diverse inventory of books, allow browsing by consumers in a comfortable atmosphere, and have reading programs for children. And while the transaction costs of dealing with a return policy probably are enough to deter someone from "borrowing" books in the same way as one would at a library, it's still the case that booksellers are doing a lot - perhaps even more - for encouraging reading in the US than public libraries. The selection at your average B&N swamps the average public library, and will continue to do so as B&N and other bigbox booksellers continue to expand into the suburbs, inner cities, and small towns.

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Speedmaster

Great question, I guess it would be pretty tough.

But I think we might see a resurgence of private libraries.
http://amateureconblog.blogspot.com/2007/04/booking-your-own-private-library.html

adorita

I live near a public library in Canada. Since I moved here and started visiting the library regularly, I actually buy a lot more books from Amazon (500% increase). Maybe it's just me. I feel that the library acts like the sampler at the grocery store, a little sample tasting actually increase my will to buy.

Simon Fodden

Speaking of Canada -- as adorita just was -- we have the Public Lending Right Commission here (as do some European countries).

http://www.plr-dpp.ca/PLR/default.aspx

This distributes payments to authors on the basis of a survey of library holdings and depending on the frequency with which an author's book is found.

egretman

The selection at your average B&N swamps the average public library

Really? Wow. I thought B&N stood for Barnes and Noble? Well, anyhow, I go to my Barnes and Noble, look through the lastest books, and then go to the library and check them out. For free. Almost never fails.

Which sort of makes Dubner's point. I guess.

KenK

I am pretty sure that libraries actually DO pay publishers a certain amount for every time their book circulates. Obviously it is less than the purchase price of a book, but equally obviously when I lend a book (that I've bought) to a friend there is no payment involved, similarly, the publisher incurs no extra cost from a book being lent by a library whereas a new book sale is not worth $50 to them, it is worth $50 minus the costs of printing etc.