Are Libraries Killing Bookshops?

Terry DearyI read an interesting article in The Guardian today in which Terry Deary, author of the Horrible Histories series, claims that libraries ‘have had their day’ and that the concept behind them, namely offering the impoverished access to books, no longer applies in an era of compulsory education.  I have a feeling his views are only shared by a tiny minority of people.

I find Deary’s argument that libraries are killing bookshops rather odd.  He claims that bookshops are closing down “because someone is giving away the product they are trying to sell”.  Both libraries and bookshops have co-existed alongside each other for a long time and if libraries really were killing bookshops then this would surely have happened quite a long time ago.  I don’t have any statistical evidence of this but I am pretty sure that a lot of people who use libraries also buy a fair amount of books which is why both have been able to co-exist.   The authors whose books are the most frequently borrowed from libraries  – like Deary himself – also manage to sell a lot of books.  Some people may initially borrow a book by a certain author and then later buy their own copies.  Therefore, libraries may in fact increase business for bookshops.  

Deary argues that authors need to make a living and they make less money from royalties earned under the Public Lending Right scheme than they do if they manage to sell their books in shops.  However, rather than attacking libraries, he should be focusing on the real problem in the publishing industry which is eBook piracy.  If somebody borrows a book from a public library then the author at least gets something in terms of royalties whereas they get absolutely nothing if files of their work are freely circulating on the Internet.

Deary’s view of the purpose of libraries appears to be rather narrow.  As I mentioned in my recent blog post about why libraries are important, libraries are not just about borrowing books.  They also serve as community centres which offer social and education services and many also hold important local archives.  As somebody who has made a fortune from writing about history, Deary ought to be more than aware of the importance of this aspect of library services and it is a real shame that he is effectively advocating their closure.

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23 Comments

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23 responses to “Are Libraries Killing Bookshops?

  1. I definitely can see why libraries are killing bookshops. I only buy books that I HAVE TO HAVE. And typically, I will buy them on Amazon.com. I feel like I need to support my local bookstores more often (as opposed to Barnes and Noble) but it’s hard to shell out an extra $10+ when you can buy used books on Amazon for my cheaper. It’s a Catch 22…

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  2. Libraries are serving the impoverished in several ways, and one of them is to provide computers for the library users to use. We always have most of the computers at our library occupied, and people waiting for one when the economy is poor. It seems like the recent phenomenon that is hitting book stores the hardest is online stores.

    Di’s comment that she only buys books she has to have–from Amazon–confirms my point.

    I think your comment about the timing of the issue is the most telling.–Kay R. @ whatmeread.

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  3. markharwoodwriter

    I can’t help but think that people like Deary are creating controversy where there isn’t any to bring a little attention his way. I hope that’s the case anyway, ’cause what the heck?

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    • I so agree. I Drewy should get out of his cushy ghetto a bit. Not everyone can afford to buy books and as for those that do, it doesn’t hinder them from supporting their local library in checking out a few. I think it’s necessary to have thriving libraries and they do work quite well next to bookshops.

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  4. What century is that guy living in? He really believes that libraries are the downfall of book stores? Is he unaware of low-priced (and often free) ebooks and Amazon?

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  5. At-risk adults (whom my organization serves) are often nervous about bookstores or anything that emphasizes their own low-esteem about being new or struggling readers. Libraries often offer the first welcoming literary environment for people who can’t read well, but who become committed readers. Our constituents are proud when they get their first library card and begin to check out books. It helps them be part of a community. These are not people who can afford to buy books, by the way, however much they’d want to.

    Libraries are crucial in rural towns, too: they’re the center of towns, and by offering computers are well as public programming with reading at its core tend to be places of public connection and even discourse. To suggest that libraries should disappear because they hurt bookstores is looking at one type of people alone.

    Now to speak on behalf of that type: I buy many, many books each year, and I also use my library. I check out fiction that I would not buy, but knowing that I can read it for free I’m willing to give it a chance. If I like it, I buy more by that author, and often buy the book I originally checked out.

    I also depend on my library for inter-library loan for the books I use for my research (I’m a historical novelist). I’ve also seen high school students using inter-library loan to check out books for research papers.

    And let’s not forget the frequent introductions libraries give to authors through reading events and lectures. They sell books at these events, too.

    Perhaps what Deary should most remember, though, is that the library is the place where many young people get addicted reading; by learning to love books through library use, they become the people who buy books throughout adulthood.

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  6. Here here! I knew I wasn’t the only one with these thoughts…

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  7. Libraries kept me reading when I didn’t have the money to support a book habit, introduced me to writers so that I then went on to buy full-price copies of other works by them and allowed me to borrow and enjoy out-of-print books that no bookshop would stock. I’d respectfully put forward the view that Mr Ready is talking utter nonsense. Anything that gets people reading who wouldn’t otherwise bother with it is not the enemy of authors.

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  8. Ailesha

    I completely agree with dianemagras! Deary’s argument is elitist at best and completely appalling at worst. He knows very well that the demographic who would suffer most from a library’s closing are the under-served and impoverished in areas with low-access. By claiming that libraries have “had their day” and that writers aren’t making nearly the money they used to completely ignores the facts that have been brought up here: ebook piracy, Amazon, greedy publishers. Libraries are one of human kinds greatest most wondrous inventions who pull people in (those who, like dianmagras said, may not come in otherwise) and provide a space for learning, solitude, dreaming, escaping, conversation and growth. To argue to take away libraries is to argue to take away access to a key part of the human spirit. Even on my low Graduate student income, I still buy books from local book stores, and yes, on my Kindle. But this does not mean I never step foot in a library. It does not mean that I don’t remember the thrill of my first library card. Deary needs to visit his local libraries, or the ones in smaller rural towns and see the thriving social and educational organism housed there, an extension of the broader human organism.

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  9. I agree that our public libraries provide a service to the most vulnerable in society (access to the internet, internet taster sessions for novices, books and reading materials for those who can’t afford to buy them, a safe non-consumerist space to engage with the community, etc) but, just as importantly, they are also part of our culture and heritage. Our forefathers fought long and hard for the right to a free public library system (in the days when our political thinkers still believed in the transformative nature of self-education) but we relinquish this so easily. We may be undergoing a digital revolution, but if newspapers survived the wireless and then radio star survived video then I’m sure books can survive their digital counterparts with room for the continuation of both bookshops and libraries.

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  10. In my area we manage to have a really good relationship with the local book shops. When we have an author event we invite them along to sell the author’s book so that people can get signed copies to own etc. We use an independent bookshop for the children’s events and a national name for others because that’s what we have on offer in the town. I also know they recommend the library for books they can’t get or if the customer doesn’t want to pay huge amounts for a back catalogue of a new favourite author’s work. I am quite happy to know that I won’t be losing any sleep over the lack of book sales, for a while at least!

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  11. Most avid readers can read far more books than they can afford to buy. There are plenty of books I would never take a chance on if I had to pay for them. There are very few authors whose books I buy without reading them first, and I discovered those authors through the library. The discovery function of libraries is just one small argument suggesting that libraries might actually promote sales. But, as all mentioned above, that’s hardly the most important purpose for a library.

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  12. I don’t know how you fell about awards but I have taken the liberty of nominating you for a Liebster Award. Just another way of saying that I enjoy reading your blog. You can see details about the award on lazycoffees at http://wp.me/p2RKjC-99

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  13. I think libraries are so important! As a child I didn’t have money to buy books, and I loved going to the library every week to pick up my favorite books. Compulsory education, while important, has little to do with fostering a love of reading. What makes me sad is that in my neck of the woods, the nicest libraries are in the nicest communities, so I have an awesome library I hardly need, while the poorest children have the least library access.

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  14. Am really late to this, but this opinion (that libraries are killing bookshops) seems absurd. As you say, they existed alongside each other for quite some time, and have only now had problems, not because of an issue between the two of them but because of the way technology is changing book-buying and publishing.

    That said, the whole “x is killing books” meme is in general starting to feel very out-of-date, with some articles saying that the whole e-book/book thing has reached somewhat of an equilibrium.

    Anyway, good blog!

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  15. I don’t see his point. Many people cannot afford the volume of books they read, so they clearly benefit from libraries and it all adds to a better society, composed of illustrated people, people who are curious about the world and who are willing (and are given the opportunity which I think is also a right) to learn. We all benefit from such an exchange!

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  16. Australian libraries are killing Australian bookshops, but that’s a good thing because (1) libraries offer more choice; (2) libraries are free; (3) libraries are more local and have car parks—bookshops are far-away and have no car parks; and (4) books in Australia are SO expensive to buy! I much prefer my library. Without libraries, I wouldn’t be reading and I wouldn’t be blogging. Books are just too expensive here. Screw bookstores.

    Alternatively, let niche bookstores lend their stock in schemes funded by the public libraries? That might please more people… then again, we don’t miss record stores now we have iTunes.

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    • Inclined to agree. I only buy books that I consider A++; I just don’t have the shelf space for anything less. Sometimes I’ll buy Australian books because I believe in supporting our arts, but goddamn some retailers make it hard! $25 for a novella that I could knock out in a single afternoon? No thanks. It’s the same with movies and video games. Publishers/Distributors seem hell bent on extorting Australian consumers, hence why I’m an advocate for second-hand trading.

      In regards to the issue of libraries, Public Lending Rights ensure guilt-free borrowing. What a fantastic reward scheme for authors.

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      • I agree that libraries are absolutely the best way to enjoy books. Movies and music (some people will disagree about music) are better when they’re transmitted digitally, but something is lost if the same thing is done with a book.

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  17. Being able to borrow a book free from a library gives a reader chance to experiment. Yes, you could do the same at asecond hand book shop or even a new one if funds permit but the chances are you’ll stick in your comfort zone.

    They are also the first place a child reader, or at least this child reader, gets to be free to do this.

    http://nolanparker.wordpress.com/2013/02/23/a-personal-history-of-libraries/

    Finally, libraries are a place for everyone and for some of us, one of the few returns we get on our taxes.

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  18. Vishy

    Nice post! I totally disagree with Terry Deary! I can’t believe that a writer wrote this! Especially when he would have used a library for doing a lot of his research. I frequently find that if we want an old out-of-print book, the only way to get it is by borrowing it from the library, because used copies are extremely expensive and are hard to come by. And this is not an infrequent thing because it happens all the time. If writers start thinking like this – that libraries are killing bookshops – I don’t know what others will think. It is really sad.

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  19. Electronics are altering the model for both. I would like to say that I go to a bookstore for a book I have to have, but I have over a $100 of unused gift certificates to purchase books, while I go next door and borrow books from the great Brooklyn Central Library. Having such a library may make my experience more unique, and I will ultimately buy some historical non-fiction books from the bookstore. Even the Brooklyn Central Library is changing as Ebooks reduce the need for more popular hardcovers. It is becoming more of a social center with computer facilities. The cost and administration of libraries and alternative use for often expensive real estate will restructure libraries, as it will do to book content. The small market new and foreign fiction that I read might no longer have an outlet in these new libraries and these can be the domain of bookstores, should the content not be distributed online directly by authors or through internet channels.

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