Are Public Libraries Putting Small Bookstores Out of Business?

I fear that the answer is yes, particularly in small markets. The NYT ran an article yesterday documenting how public libraries are responding to local demand for popular reading. Specifically, they are catering to the public hunger for disposable romance novels.

At the bustling public library in Arlington Heights, Ill., requests by three patrons to place any title on hold prompt a savvy computer tracking system to order an additional copy of the coveted item. That policy was intended to eliminate the frustration of long waits to check out best sellers and other popular books. But it has had some unintended consequences, too: the library’s shelves are now stocked with 36 copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Now, I’m fine with this. Libraries are free to stock junk. One person’s trashy fiction is another person’s Shakespeare. I wonder, however, if the shift to popular junk fiction isn’t putting someone out of a job or a business. I feel, however, that the friendly public library is doing just that. Certainly, internet sales and e-books are the number one reason book retailers are going extinct. Public libraries, however, must be number two and their influence extends to other types of media.

Ann Arbor used to pride itself as have more bookstores per capita than any other city in the United States. We had more than 15 bookstores (by my count) in the downtown area which sold all kinds of books. These places were great spaces to hang out in, and made Ann Arbor attractive to tourists and visitors. It was something to be proud of. Now, of all the bookstores which were here in 1988, only one remains. It sells exclusively used books. There are other small book retailers, that are really just gift stores in the end.

Libraries did not kill these stores. I do feel, however, that the Ann Arbor Public Library and the (wonderful) Askwith Media Library at the University of Michigan killed the video store. Liberty Street Video died soon after the expansion of the DVD library at the Ann Arbor Public Library, located almost on the same street. Demand for DVDs still exists. The Askwith Library is always busy with students looking to borrow films for the weekend.

I am not trying to slam public libraries. I believe in public libraries and tax payer funded access to open information, even if it is information that some people may not like.

I was interested, however, in the complex issues at play in the simple article.

Are public libraries undermining small, local businesses? Are they setting standards for the small businesses by providing competition where there is none? Liberty Street Video could have responded by offering better services and products. It didn’t. It stuck with VHS until it closed. At the end, it was an awful store. Border’s died because it refused to compete with Amazon’s low prices.

How can public libraries balance potential negative effects on small businesses with the need to satisfy community demand?

Are private donations the solution? It’s worth pointing out that Askwith, UM’s large video library was built using private donations.

Personally, I don’t know, so I though I’d ramble on about it for a while. Though there aren’t many of you out there, what do you think?

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

One response to “Are Public Libraries Putting Small Bookstores Out of Business?”

  1. mikey2ct says :

    I think eventually the pleasure of holding in one’s hands, and reading a book is going to be exercised only by the very well-off.

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