February 17, 2018

The British Library and the Lure of Amazon

The British Library does not seem quite so placidly assured these days, as the confusion and upset over its expanding relationship with Amazon shows. The dispute will likely repeat itself here at some point in the not too distant future, as more public libraries decide that it has suddenly become a part of their mission to become a middleman for an astute, enormous and aggressive corporation.

First, the United Kingdom’s national library decided last week to link its online integrated catalog exclusively to Amazon.co.uk.

The link takes patrons from the library’s catalog to the sales page on the Amazon site. A library spokesperson said the exclusivity was a result of a pre-built generic link coming with the Primo software supplied by ExLibris, which powers the catalog, the Bookseller reported. The library said it was providing an alternative method to obtain a book.

Explanations notwithstanding, other U.K. booksellers were predictably, and understandably, furious.

The Bookseller talked to Johnny de Falbe of John Sandoe bookshop who let forth a cogent protest: “The British Library says it is ‘providing users with the choice of an alternative method of obtaining a title if, for some reason, it is not available in the Library’s Reading Rooms.’ But users have always had an alternative method: it is called going to a bookshop. Are the British Library’s directors unaware that Britain has a great many very good bookshops? If so, they should discover them and learn what booksellers do besides simply taking money for products. If not, do they think everyone else attaches so little value to a diversity of bookshops and booksellers?”

De Falbe said, according to the Bookseller, that the library was ignoring the whole UK book trade in favor of Amazon.

“I had always fondly supposed that the British Library, of all people/institutions, would support British bookshops. Although the British Library has many private donors, it is primarily supported by public funds. Amazon is not a public information service: it is an aggressively competitive retailer. In effect, the taxes paid by UK booksellers are being used for the promotion of a single competitor, whose interests are in direct conflict.”

I really would like to hear how the library answers Mr. De Falbe. How is it is in his interest to lend his allegiance to a public institution that takes the money he pays in taxes and uses it, in part, to promote the business of his most voracious and lethal competitor? Under the circumstances, can the library really maintain that it is a disinterested public institution?

James Daunt, the managing director of Waterstone’s, a bookstore chain which also owns the London bookseller Hatchards, said in the same article: “It’s disappointing to say the least that a very British institution is driving readers away from local libraries and high street bookshops. In an environment where high street booksellers and libraries face huge pressures, it is a shame that the British Library choose to give their endorsement to one aggressively commercial organization.”

The library administrators then blinked. They removed the link (which shows it can be done). But then they put it back on Tuesday (October 18) “because of its usefulness for library users seeking further information about collection items,” such as book jacket images and content pages.

Again, predictably, this has led to a renewed protest. Tim Godfray, chief executive of the Booksellers Association, a trade group, asked Dame Lynne Brindley, the library’s chief executive officer, on Wednesday, to review the Amazon arrangement, the Bookseller reported.

“We believe very strongly that the British Library should be opening channels for all book retailers to benefit from the opportunities offered by the British Library and I have written to Dame Lynne to request that she reviews the relationship with Amazon within that context as a matter of urgency,” Godfray said.

The Booksellers Association reported on October 4 that it had 1,483 independent bookseller members in June 2006, with the number falling by 26 percent to 1,099 by June 2011, the Guardian reported.

When will the librarian community better appreciate that just because Amazon is inexorable and seemingly ubiquitous that it is not always a resource worth promoting or a partner worth having? Productive and ethical partnerships with Amazon are not impossible, such as the British Library’s program to make 65,000 out-of-print 19th century titles available on Amazon via CreateSpace’s print on-demand service and as free downloads for Kindle owners.

But sometimes it is incumbent on librarians to say no, and to stand for something more than convenience and a devouring commerce.

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley (mkelley@mediasourceinc.com) is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.



  1. Eoin Talking about O’Brien press have you ever come accross a Mary Webb a nighebour know she was unwell for a while but I think she is up and runing again, used to eat books for fun she was with O’Brien Press for a good while maybe still is?Nioce lady heavily into books