Should Libraries Stop Buying Books?

It was reported last week that some libraries in Birmingham have “stopped buying books and newspapers” and are requesting donations from the public. Yet just two years earlier, the city had been celebrating the opening of the very shiny state-of-the-art Library of Birmingham which was built at a cost of £188 million. It is the largest civic library in Europe and also features a gallery, theatre, recording studio and extensive archives. However, it is the smaller libraries in the city where the requests have appeared, as the Library of Birmingham itself does not accept donations.

Birmingham city councillor Penny Holbrook said: “whilst we have not corporately asked for donations from the public and this is the action of a few libraries, we do of course welcome any support the public wish to give our community libraries and the council in general. However, we do not expect the public to make up for cuts to the budget from the government.” Requests for new purchases are still being examined “on a case-by-case basis” and the Library of Birmingham is continuing to purchase special collection books such as large print and some non-fiction titles.

Cuts to libraries haven’t just hit Birmingham. Many libraries across the country have reduced their budgets for purchasing new books as part of wider cost-cutting efforts. However, this is the first time I’ve come across a self-imposed book-buying ban (or “pause”) until further notice alongside requests for public donations.

Given the financial difficulties facing libraries over the last few years, I’m a little bit surprised that this hasn’t happened sooner and more widely across the country. I don’t know how many books Birmingham libraries have received so far since putting out the appeal but I think it’s likely that there will be a strong response from the public and it could lead to more varied collections of books, particularly in smaller libraries. On the other hand, Birmingham City Council is looking to make savings of over £100 million this year and cutting the annual book fund reported to be around £1 million is a relatively small drop in the ocean which may not help prevent more closures in the long-term.

No matter what type of building it is, a library isn’t a library without adequate resources, which includes both books and knowledgeable staff. Unfortunately, it seems to be already too little too late for the Library of Birmingham which has cut its opening hours and made around half of the original 188 library staff redundant less than two years after opening.

What do you think? Should libraries stop buying books? Which books would you donate to your local library?

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47 Comments

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47 responses to “Should Libraries Stop Buying Books?

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Seems like a case of style over content – what’s the point of spending all that money on a fancy building if you can’t stock it with what people need – books. If they started for example cutting the amount of funding to the House of Lords for people who don’t do anything, there would certainly be enough money for books…

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I donate what I read and I donate usually when I move but sometimes during spring cleaning.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Interesting! Every year, once a year I rearrange my library as I have limited space and buy and read a lot of books. Mine generally go to the Church Book Fair, but this year I offered them to a prison library – we are talking here about nearly new hardbacks (often non-fiction as well as fiction) and some nearly new paperbacks – in all this year it was about 9 easy-to-carry boxes (so about 10-12 books x 9). No interest whatsoever! But in future I might try a local library (don’t live near Birmingham though).

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    • I’ve wrote about books in prisons in another post last year although I think the government keep changing the rules about this. I wonder if other libraries would accept donations even if they haven’t asked for them?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m almost positive, at least in the U.S., that you can’t donate books to a library. Library editions cost more because the publishers want to get the most money for the number of people who will read it. E-books can only be borrowed X number of times from a library before they are deemed unusable, and the library must buy a new copy (the argument is that if a physical book wears out, they library has to buy it again; therefore, there are limitations on e-books). I know that libraries accept books for donation, but then have to sell them to make money for the library, usually about $1 a piece.

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      • The rules about eBooks in libraries are the same here but I’m not sure what the legal position is in the UK about donating books. Authors can earn royalties through Public Lending Right when their books are borrowed from libraries but I’m not sure if that would work in the same way if the book had been donated separately. If anyone knows more, I would be interested in hearing about it!

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  4. hollycooksthebooks

    I would happily donate books to a library but I think that if a library stops buying new books then they can only go into decline. Surely the new releases and decent stock are what gets people using the libraries. I think it’s a big shame. I used to work in my local library as a teenager and it still remains my favourite job of all time. I find it quite sad now when I visit the library and the staff have basically all been replaced by self checkout machines and it’s a bit like a ghost town.

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  5. It’s a shame maybe we should all donate books to libraries I do from time to time of course any book I would donate would be a translation

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    • You’ve just reminded me that my local library requests donations of books in foreign languages. However, they haven’t appealed for donations of other types of books including translations into English. It would be good to see a wide variety of donated books as some libraries don’t invest very much in translated fiction.

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  6. As much as I would love for libraries to stay open and keep obtaining resources, the truth is that most people have moved to technology (eBooks). Many bookstores do not have a big crowd either, but the bigger ones stay open by offering books online; like Barnes and Noble. Some libraries already do this with most books, but it does tremendously reduce the staff:( All in all, I do agree that the content of the library is more important than how it looks on the outside. Making a few arrangements on the inside to make it cozy and welcoming it probably all that is needed.

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    • I wrote a post last year about eBooks in libraries and I think bookshops have adapted to selling eBooks faster than libraries have adapted to allowing people to borrow them so yes, for people who read eBooks then libraries are not really an option. But not everyone does and it’s people who don’t have access to computers and books who rely on them the most. Unfortunately, in Birmingham’s case, it seems to be a lack of long-term planning and bad management which has caused so many problems – the new building seems perfectly nice, it’s just sad that they are restricting access to it 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Your first commenter nailed it. A great article.

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  8. Honestly I would be heartbroken if my local San Francisco or Berkeley library quit buying books. I do read most of my books in e format but there is nothing like the experience of opening a book and touching the pages. If it were only based on donation, the libraries would end up with a ton of bestsellers and have no place for quirky, random books that I enjoy so much that may not have made it to the top 5 list of US bestsellers!

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  9. This makes me so angry. Why indeed pour money into style when you have no substance? People rely on libraries … there are people I know who don’t have any other resource of information. Having to rely on the general public for resources is a terrifying thought. Put the library in a shipping container and have the right stock!

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  10. I feel like with donations, there won’t be as many new releases donated because people would want to read it themselves. In my experience, people usually donate books that they don’t want anymore.

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  11. It’s ridiculous to spend so much money on a building and then say you can’t afford books. My university is spending ~$60 million a new building they don’t need (actually had to knock down other buildings to make it), meanwhile they don’t pay their teachers well. The school my brother in law works at put in a $30 million gym but won’t hire a second counselor even though they have tons of suicidal kids there. The priorities are so out of whack.

    Also I have wanted to donate books I love to my library but they told me it’s unlikely they’d actually put them in the stacks, and would probably sell them at a book sale or throw them out instead.

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    • It seems that libraries in the UK have more relaxed rules about accepting donations compared to other countries based on what other bloggers have been saying. I can understand libraries need books which are in excellent condition and recently published but I would have thought most people wouldn’t mind if there were older books available too.

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      • That’s interesting about UK libraries. The library here won’t even take books that are in excellent condition and recently published a lot of the time…even if I offer to buy a new copy just for the library. It’s really frustrating because the library here in town has a poor selection and most of the time they don’t have the books I want to read. Sometimes I find good books by browsing but if I want to read a specific book, odds are I’ll have to try to interlibrary loan it, and you only get 12 of those a year, and even requests that go unfulfilled count toward that. It’s a bummer 😦

        Liked by 1 person

  12. My local library doesn’t accept donations, but the next one over does. Both of them are full of your standard James Patterson and Celia Ahern type novels, though one has an amazing poetry section. I wish that they had better selections, but they do continually update with new books. The fact that Birmingham isn’t seems irresponsible- how are people who need texts going to get them? Students and people who can’t afford to buy every book they want to read will suffer. From experience, physical large print books and audio books are really expensive (about $50-70Aud each, which people just can’t afford. They need libraries to have those available, and shouldn’t be punished for wanting to read new releases!

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  13. Grab the Label’s comment was on point. When my Dad died I tried to donate a large collection of books that were in excellent condition (some also first editions), but the library would only accept them to sell. My library, Brooklyn’s Central Library is fabulous and fortunately the system fought to not have a budget cut this year. They do tend to thin out books, but continue to buy (having many in translations, foreign language as well as many new fiction, including small presses). It helps to have many publishers and editors living where I live. The Central Library is also transitioning to be more of a learning center, with more computers, meeting rooms etc. I don’t know if the Birmingham library is also adapting to make good use of the buildings. While my library lends eBooks, I still prefer hard copy, and fortunately my branch is overwhelmed with them. Absolutely, libraries should continue to buy books. Ebooks do not provide serendipity exploration that comes from walking the stacks and finding an author(s) you never heard of that you might want to read, or just finding information in books on the shelf that you scan. I did this when I was young and it is as important as reading to a child. There is imagination in those shelves.

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    • It’s good that Brooklyn library is prioritising foreign languages etc which are not easily available elsewhere. I haven’t been to the new library in Birmingham but I understand it has lots of study spaces and computers etc. However, when they cut the opening hours, they also restricted certain areas of the library from being used too which is a real shame. I agree that browsing eBooks online definitely isn’t the same!

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      • Actually the Brooklyn Central Library has a wing of books in foreign languages as well as tapes. There are many foreign languages covered. The library is a gem!

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  14. I think it’s a bit of a joke for a library to rely only on donations to update their collection. Most likely, there will be minimal new publications donated, hence outdated, and titles may be redundant. It’s such a shame to read an article like this because the library, I think, is a vital part of the community. I hope there are other ways to earn money and keep a sufficient fund to buy more books.

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    • I think libraries are trying to find books published in the last year or so although it probably means they won’t receive too many donations if it is restricted to new books only. I agree that libraries are vital for communities and hope that the pause on buying new books is only temporary!

      Liked by 1 person

  15. When I worked in magazines I was sent far more children’s picture books than we ever had space to review. I donated them to my local Sure Start who were delighted as they lacked the funds to buy many books themselves. The same principle holds for libraries, I suppose, although it’s sad that they’re reduced to this.

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    • I haven’t read anything about whether or not children’s books have been affected at Birmingham libraries but I believe these should be prioritised. Even though the libraries are only requesting new books at the moment, I think it probably matters less for children’s books as long as there is a good variety.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. The problem with donating books to libraries is that it could take money from charity shops which is probably one of the things that keeps most of them going. Strangely enough a lot of libraries have been given expensive makeovers in recent years yet they lose books in order to have computers filling the place. I don’t bother with libraries any more due to the loud kids that are encouraged in.

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    • I can identify with that, I once tried to revise for my exams in my local library when a “Baby Rhyme Time” session was going on which wasn’t fun, but I still think libraries should be a place for everyone. Having worked in the sector, I don’t think selling books in shops are a significant source of income for charities but yes, it could potentially affect them.

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  17. I must admit I was shocked when I first heard about this. What’s going on over there. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Back when Prop. 13, the first big anti-tax bill passed, California libraries cut hours and services like mad. But people really rallied to save them. Now I don’t think anyone in California politics would ever suggest cutting libraries. Even people who seldom use them see their civic importance. There’s lots wrong with America, and with California, but politicians best keep their hands off the library.

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  18. Pingback: Should Libraries Stop Buying Books? | Librarian Musings

  19. The Cue Card

    Oh these cuts sadden me. The library needs to continue to purchase books. They seemed to have over-spent in their building plans vs. costs to run the library. Libraries must continue!

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  20. Jeff

    Public libraries will not only want recent publications, as the notice on your blog states, but they’ll also benefit most from hardback editions, due to the better durability. I’m confident that a lot of the public will sympathise if called upon. Libraries will nevertheless continue to have the problem of how to plug the gaps in which few people buy books and then hold onto those books.

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    • Yes, I tend to give away much older books as I’m sure many other people do too. They might have to relax their policy a bit as I’m sure most people wouldn’t be too bothered about the age of the books as long as they were in reasonable condition.

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  21. Pingback: Stasiland by Anna Funder: A Journalistic Take on East Germany’s Good Old, Bad Old Days | Recent Items

  22. islandmoonrise

    Amazing that politicians give themselves 10% pay rises but don’t care about public literacy or essential access to books, computers and workspace. Perhaps they think we know too much already:)
    Seriously, we pay high levels of tax in UK, in many different ways, so it’s sad reading has been deprioritised the way it has. Having worked in local council, I know that business acumen is not a training requirement so from high to low there’s a lot of mismanagement. Libraries could make more money to put back into the coffers, but the creativity and commitment to do this is often lacking an a rather institutionalised and hierarchical management system. The money squandered on a building rather than its contents says it all, doesn’t it? Great article.

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