Do Libraries Need Books Anymore?

One librarian says they do:

Ok, first of all, Kindle is about allow their devices to be used with Overdrive, which is a giant ebook vendor that tons of libraries are using. So, right there, libaries are anticipating the whole Ebook deal and making strides to lining themselves up directly in front of it. But, I think removing all the books from a library is sorta ridiculous. I guess they are straight up saying, Sorry folks who are too poor, too poorly educated, or just don’t care about the digital divide. We are going to eliminate you from our service group. YOU are not longer allowed free information. We just dont’ care. We are going to run with Ebooks, period. Sorry kid whose parents can’t afford an Ipad. Sorry older gentleman who just really savors the smell of an old western book. There is certainly a place for electronic books in the library. In my opinion, you could cut 89% of all reference books and just go electronic on that. But I think you got to have books.

The distributional concern here doesn’t seem very reasonable to me. A Kindle costs $114. A copy of Jason Stearns’ Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa costs $18.74 in print and $13.99 in digital form. So if a library can save $5 per book on acquisitions by going digital, then every thirty or so new books it acquires generate enough savings to buy a Kindle that can be made available to folks who don’t already own an e-reader. And of course the Kindle’s not the most expensive e-reader on the market. Obviously to really get this calculation “right” you’d need to consider bulk discounts and so forth but that should give you an idea of the scale. Once you consider storage costs and the fact that electronics are getting cheaper very rapidly, I think it would almost certainly be cheaper for public libraries to shift to purchasing e-readers and e-books instead of stocking physical books.

Public officials are risk-averse for some good reasons, and managing the transition would be difficult, so I understand that people aren’t chomping at the bit to make this switch. But there are a lot of libraries in America, and I’m confident someone will figure it out.


In the original I wrote “three” where it now correctly says “thirty.”

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