Tracy Nectoux on Libraries versus Bookstores

Tracy Nectoux, a library student at UIUC, is taking a class whose students were assigned to visit a bookstore and compare the atmosphere to a library’s atmosphere. This is what she wrote:

The library’s purpose is different from that of bookstores

  • And it always has been. Public libraries are set up so that anyone who wants to can give himself or herself a free university education. This has been the case since Boston Public Library opened its doors in 1848. Yes, the library offers more than this, and its purpose is not solely to educate. I would argue, however, that this is its most important purpose, and this opportunity is available to every citizen who wants it.
  • The purpose of bookstores is to make profit by selling books, CDs, DVDs, coffee, etc. True, bookstores sell some educational books along with escapist fare and entertainment, but their wares are available only to those who can afford to pay for them.

Libraries are public institutions; bookstores are private institutions

This is self-explanatory. Implicit in the question of why libraries can’t be more like bookstores is the attitude that bookstores make money while libraries cost money. I’ve heard quite a bit of fearful statements that the public is at best, apathetic toward libraries and at worst, hostile toward us. I can’t say I have all the answers to address this issue, but I think that changing our goals, purposes, and mission (or altering it beyond recognition), is certainly not the answer.

The mission of libraries is different from that of bookstores

Foremost in the American Library Association’s mission, priority areas, and goals are intellectual freedom, access to all, and public awareness. The ALA is the only major public organization that is at the forefront of fighting the Patriot Act. The ALA has continuously and inexhaustibly fought book banning and censorship. And the ALA often steps outside library issues, joining with and supporting other organizations regarding social justice and responsibility:

Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) is a unit within the American Library Association. It works to make ALA more democratic and to establish progressive priorities not only for the Association, but also for the entire profession. Concern for human and economic rights was an important element in the founding of SRRT and remains an urgent concern today. SRRT believes that libraries and librarians must recognize and help solve social problems and inequities in order to carry out their mandate to work for the common good and bolster democracy.

None of the above could be said to be a goal of bookstores, either independent or chain. They are businesses whose bottom line is profit. First Amendment freedoms, civil rights issues, equal access to all, etc. are just not going to be at the top of their yearly accounting financial quotas. Indeed, I would guess that Borders Books has spent more money fighting unions than it has fighting for equal access. I doubt most bookstores have a Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force.

Libraries spend money and time on services that bookstores don’t offer

  • Libraries are at the cutting edge of preservation, something with which bookstores do not have to concern themselves. What doesn’t sell, doesn’t sell; so long, farewell. Contrarily, libraries (along with museums) spend countless hours on preservation. A quick perusal of the U of I OPAC shows that we have six copies of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry on our own shelves and hundreds more available through I-Share. These range from older editions going back to 1910, to newer editions from the last decade, to scholarly interpretation, to even online sources. Urbana Free Library has A Defence of Poetry as an electronic resource, and thirty-seven other works by Shelley, including anthologies that contain the above title. What were turn-of-the-century scholars saying about Shelley’s literary criticism? We know what they were saying because our libraries preserve this information. Pages For All Ages, however, does not contain even one edition of this important work of Romantic criticism.
  • Consider Stephen King’s Danse Macabre (a New York Times bestseller and winner of both the Hugo and Locus awards). In this book?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùa modern classic of genre reflection and history?¢‚Ǩ‚ÄùKing includes an appendix containing a list of books that have been influential to him as a scholar and author. Many of the books in King’s appendix are out of print. Where can a King fan go to find them? Moreover, the 1982 edition of Danse Macabre is also out of print. Where can a King fan go to find the award-winning edition? Of course, today, some (but not all) of these books can probably be found online through used bookstores, but even so, what is a lower-class or thrifty reader to do if he/she wants to read the 1982 edition of Danse Macabre, or the books from Stephen King’s list? (And we can be certain that his fans will want to read them.) Where can we find these classics selected by arguably the most influential horror writer of all time? Who would have all of them available (either on the shelves or through IL) free of charge? And who wouldn’t? I’ll bet I don’t have to answer this.
  • The University of Illinois Rare Book Library has “a significant portion of the Bible printed by Johannes Gutenberg.” We also have an original Audubon. I would venture to guess that if, say, Barnes and Noble had anything close to this, they would limit their latte service too. Why is our lighting dimmer than bookstores? Why are we selective about where we allow food and drink? Because our holdings are more valuable and vulnerable than those in bookstores.
  • It is a little-known fact (outside of library school) that libraries are also at the cutting edge of digital technology and preservation. We should remember this and flaunt it. We provide online access to journals, periodicals, indexes, and abstracts. Public access to this scholarship is not a concern for bookstores, and even if it was, they’d charge for it.

Services that bookstores provide (and libraries do too)

  • Reading Groups? We have them.
  • Employee Favorite Picks? We got it.
  • Displays? Yes.
  • Booklists? Of course.
  • Story time? We have it.
  • Copy machines? Check.
  • Movies and music? Check and Check.
  • Oprah’s latest diet book? We have it, and we also have a Gutenberg!!
  • Space for meetings and studying? We have it.

We also have free tax forms, phone books, city, state, and national maps, free information on homeschooling and special education. We have knowledgeable, educated staff and exceptional Readers Advisory guides. We offer free Internet access. We have toys that children can play with, and even borrow. A warm couch in the winter for the homeless? We damn sure have that too. Bookstores have none of these.

Yes, our OPACs have a learning curve. So do video games, computers, Blackberries, cell phones, and iPods. If 12-year-olds can learn how to download music on their mp3s, it shouldn’t take a grown woman an hour to find a travel book in a library (Rippel 150). We have a specialized reference desk, as well as tours and orientations, to help patrons learn. I agree that our catalogs should not be unnecessarily difficult, but whatever happened to expecting our patrons to read the instruction on the help page?

These are just a few arguments why libraries should not encourage statements that they should be more like bookstores. Our purpose is unique and honorable, and this directly effects the unique and honorable service we provide. I find that in most conversations of this kind we end up defending ourselves against criticisms that are obtuse because they are basically asking us to move away from our original purpose: education, social activism, enlightenment, and finally, entertainment. Librarians’ response to the question of why we aren’t more like bookstores should be scornful silence, or maybe derisive laughter. At most, we should just say that the question compares apples to oranges. Both are lovely and tasty, but the comparison should end there.

16 comments on “Tracy Nectoux on Libraries versus Bookstores

  1. I couldn’t agree more with this article, but take exception to comment:

    “I agree that our catalogs should not be unnecessarily difficult, but whatever happened to expecting our patrons to read the instruction on the help page?”

    I think we can’t just expect this of patrons, especially in the age of Google. We need to be on the cutting edge of developing more user-friendly websites and catalogs.

    For the record, bookstores are no better. The last one I worked at had a MUCH worse inventory control system/website than any library’s I’ve ever seen.

  2. Yes, of course you’re right, Leela. I was coming at my assignment as someone who’d previously worked in a public library and who presently works in an academic one. At both places, we have to sometimes baby patrons who don’t have the . . . discipline? . . . assertiveness? . . . to learn our catalogs’ mysterious ways. But I think I’m justified in getting a little surely when those patrons are college students. 🙂

    While I’m here, please let me add that my instructor was cheerful and supportive even though I didn’t strictly follow the “spirit” of the assignment. She gave me an excellent grade.

    Oh, and I do know the difference between “effect” and “affect.” ::sigh::

    Thank you, Rory, for this. I can’t believe I made AL Direct!

  3. I agree with your points, and have been thinking many of the same things myself. I used to work in a bookstore- I made the move to libraries because I don’t want to sell people things. Libraries have so much more to offer, and it seems like people forget that sometimes.

    I agree with Leela above that the OPAC could be better, though. Once we get people in the library, we can show them our organization systems- but if they’re turned off by the online interface, they might not make it that far. There’s no reason for many of the anachronistic features that make catalogs hard to use. We can streamline and bring to the fore what make our catalogs great – namely, the great work done by the catalogers! The patrons don’t need to ever see a MARC record, but they sure need the information it contains.

  4. It’s a good article but I think it misses the point. The point isn’t that libraries should become bookstores, it’s that libraries should take tips from bookstores on how to market their services and create an environment that people want to be in, something that bookstores do exceedingly well and libraries don’t.

  5. Karen, thank you for the “ping” and your supportive comments. I agree that our OPACs are not perfect. I agree that they should be improved. However, I don’t know enough about technology to go any further about it. I do know quite a few librarians that are brilliant in this particular field, however!

    Susan, no, the point really isn’t that we should follow bookstores’ example in “marketing” ourselves. That’s exactly the opposite of my point. Libraries cannot follow bookstores’ examples because they are not bookstores, and never will be. From the introduction to my assignment:

    To me, asking why libraries can’t be more like bookstores is like asking why the UPS guy can’t deliver a package to my door in thirty minutes or less like Domino’s can. Both UPS and Domino’s deliver; why does it take UPS so much longer? Of course, we all know that this isn’t a fair comparison because, while both are delivery services, the products that UPS and pizza deliveries bring to our doors are different. Conversely, while the products in libraries and bookstores are—for the most part—similar, the services they provide are vastly different. They both provide books, but the similarities end there. One sells books, and one lends books. One sells music and DVDs, and one lends music and DVDs. One sells coffee, stationary, mugs, etc., and one does not (at least not yet). Comparing libraries to bookstores is like comparing apples and oranges. It’s not a fair comparison; it shouldn’t be a competition, and if libraries continue to behave like it is, I’m afraid that they will be disappointed in the outcome.

    I’m not saying that we shouldn’t market ourselves. In fact, I said that we should “flaunt” our contributions to technology and education. But trying to model ourselves after bookstores is a waste of time, in my opinion.

  6. I think it is possible to learn tips from bookstores and other retailers, as long as we keep our mission in mind. I see no problem with displaying books and other items in an attractive way similar to that used in bookstores, for instance. What I do object to is the commercial mentality that seeks to collect and keep only those materials that appeal to the largest number of users. So many libraries seem to want to collect like stores do, with very deep selections in only what is popular that year. Collections are getting narrower and narrower. That occasional patron who wants an unpopular resource is expected to rely strictly on ILL, with all its inconvenience.

  7. There are a number of mistakes in this statement. First off, increasingly libraries are modeling their layouts in a very similar manner to bookstores. This is called merchandising. Some have even taking on the bookstore classification system which is much more contemporary than the dewey decimal system. There has been quite a bit of convergence recently.

    I am not so sure they are the main source of preservation in some ways. The majority of truly old books which are valuable are not in the hands of librarians, they are in private collections and antiquarian booksellers. There is quite a bit which is preserved in libraries. But, often it is not the first folio of shakespeare or the Gutenberg bible. Libraries generally contain middling quality material.

    Not all bookstores are for profit. There are a number of nonprofit bookstores where the funding goes towards educational or social purposes. Housing Works Used Book Cafe in Manhattan is a good example of this. There is also Nkiru Center for Education and Culture a nonprofit that was once the largest African American bookstore in New York.

    Libraries often have gaps in knowledge which bookstores cover and vice a versa.

    Libraries and bookstores get their books from the same source publishers who are by and the large the ones who profit the most from both the library and the bookstore. Libraries are built on the back of mega corporations, Ingram and Baker and Taylor.

    There is often more independence in selection in many bookstores. There is often a willingness to go with smaller distributors like Small Press Distributors in Berkeley California by bookstores.

    The end result is still capitalism. Publishers generally sell more older materials to libraries and newer material to bookstores.

    Bookstore owners generally earn less salary than librarians who are state employees. It is more profitable in terms of money to work as a librarian than to work in a bookstore. The higher end of management in libraries often earns far more than a bookstore owner ever will.

    To call our service free is a misnomer. It comes from taxes doled out from the state. The state determines the value of the library often by circulation statistics, the higher the use often the more money the library gets. The free stuff which the library gets is mainly government style information and nonprofit center information which are often the supporters of the library.

    The second source is foundation money. Think of it as McLibrary. The New York Public Library gets large portions of its donations from companies seeking prestige. So do many small libraries have reading rooms named after local figures who donated money.

    A library is usually a nonprofit corporation bridging a place between government and private funding.

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