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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.