Annoyed Librarian
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Free Stuff @ Your Library

On the last post, Will Manley left a comment speculating that bestselling authors eventually “will go directly to readers and bypass the middleman (publishers and libraries acting as e book portals).”

The e-book format is perfect for the bestselling author.  E-books are ephemeral and what could be more ephemeral than a bestseller?  What will the result be?  The big publishers will die off fairly quickly because they live off bestsellers, and public libraries can get back to the business of giving the patrons what they don’t want.

This could well happen, and it would indeed be disastrous for publishers, who have both reduced the amount of editing on bestselling authors while betting their future entirely on bestsellers. Commercial publishers have all but abandoned midlist authors, and in their quest for the fastest, highest possible profits have done what they could to undermine an interest in anything but lowest common denominator fiction.

This hasn’t been a complete disaster for readers of literary fiction. Many such writers are subsidized by colleges and universities, and numerous small presses have sprung up to play the cultural role we used to expect from the major publishers.

It seems to me we’ve reached the stage where the best books are now published by small or scholarly presses, so the disappearance of most large commercial fiction publishers wouldn’t destroy literary culture or the transmission of ideas. I’d read a Dalkey Archive book over a HarperCollins book any day. It would put a lot of people in NYC out of work, but given the besieged state of American libraries, librarians have their own problems to worry about.

I was particularly struck by the comment that if bestsellers are unavailable to libraries, then public libraries can go back to giving patrons what they don’t want. (In another comment he implies this is education.)  But is this true?

I’m not saying that public library patrons don’t want bestsellers. That’s what a lot of them do seem to want. But they want something else even more than bestsellers: free stuff.

Since I’ve worked in libraries for a long time and can pretty much get anything I want via interlibrary loan even if my library doesn’t have it, I’ve rarely frequented my local public libraries for books. But back in the days before Netflix (is it really just twelve years old?) I would visit my library to find videos. Why? Because they were free.

Free trumped quality. Cheesy documentaries, chopsocky movies, tedious foreign films some librarian decided would be good for me, I watched them all, because the alternative was forking over money to Blockbuster for an equally pitiful selection of current releases, the majority of which will always be bad.

A lot of video might go straight to streaming content, leaving libraries out of the loop, but not all of it will. There will still be low budget action movies and bad indie dramas and others that will come out on DVD for a while longer. And they’ll be free!

Free is important. How else can one explain the popularity of computer usage at public libraries? I know the model varies, but at some libraries I’ve visited patrons need a library card to sign up for a 30-minute slot on a dated computer, and sometimes they even have to wait in line for this dubious privilege.

It’s certainly a different experience from most academic libraries I’ve been in, where computers are numerous and open to anyone who can get into the building, but that’s neither here nor there. The important thing is, the computer use is free, at least if we don’t count the opportunity cost of having to trudge to the library and wait in line just to check your email or stream some Internet porn.

The reasoning about DVDs and computers applies to everything else libraries supply. People want bestsellers, but if there aren’t bestsellers they’ll read any old thing rather than have to pay money for books. Maybe the CD collection isn’t that great, but plenty of people would rather listen to unknown indies and the hot bands of a decade ago than pay money to iTunes.

Instead of focusing on the popular, libraries should aim for the esoteric, which would give them a much greater cool factor. Instead of trying to be like Barnes and Noble, libraries could try to be like the second-hand bookshop down the street.

In a great second-hand bookshop you won’t find the latest bestsellers, and that’s what makes them great. You might find a row of Stephen King paperbacks from the 1970s, but you’re much more likely to find an eccentric selection of books, and in larger shops probably videos and music as well, and in a variety of formats.

Instead of scurrying around wasting their money on the latest shiny technology, libraries should go retro. Is the book dead? Hell, no. And neither is the LP. Counter all the nonsense about libraries being museums of dead formats with the truth that libraries are the repositories of living formats.

Libraries always seem desperate to attract teens. You know what doesn’t attract teens? A bunch of middlebrow bestselling ebooks aimed at the white bread suburbanites. Give ‘em some cool retro. What’s better? HarperCollins ebooks, or a steampunk library?

Print books are cool. LPs are cool. And they’re cheap. Ebooks are boring, and getting more onerous all the time.

It doesn’t matter if it’s old volumes of Beat poetry or CDs of local garage bands. It doesn’t matter if it’s paperback copies of old John Grisham novels instead of ebooks of new John Grisham novels. People who come to libraries want free stuff, and they’ll take the free stuff on offer. If they wanted to pay money, they’d just go to Amazon.

The way forward is to focus on the message: Free Stuff @ Your Library. You can make it funky or fresh as long as it’s free.



  1. AL…I like your idea a lot with one caveat. If you’re pushing free, then you have to get rid of fines completely. In my retirement I shop at a lot of thrift stores (my town has 6 good ones and I only shop at the best!). They all have the kind of retro funky used book collections you talk about in your post. All books sell for a dime on fifty percent off Saturdays. As a nosy retired librarian I ask people why they buy piles of these dime books rather than go to the library and the answer is usually: “I don’t use the public library because of fines.” So if you want to “free” your library, get rid of fines. PS…AL, you are right about the teens. They are all over the thrifts, not just for books and VHS tapes but used clothes. Brilliant post, AL. I give you five stars (out of five).

  2. Roger Verdi says:

    These are nice ideas, but the reality is different.

    Popular bestsellers and DVDs are what drive circ stats and bring people into the library. And circ stats and people in the building are the prime indicator of a public library’s success. I’ve known many library directors who lard their holdings with DVDs or “media,” then shout about thier incredible circulation stats. Like it or not, the numbers get attention.

    The offbeat and esoteric are great, but in my experience tend to sit and sit on the shelves.

    And of course, we call this stuff “free” but none of it is. Here in NJ, libraries are being hacked away at with a zealous fervor as more essential services are preserved.

    If the delivery model for the most popular changes, and the large publishers do get pushed out, public libraries will likely follow.

  3. Keytar Girl says:


  4. Here’s the catch–there’s not a lot of overlap between the people who use the public library and the “white bread suburbanites” who vote to fund the library. To make it worse, those two groups probably have two very different visions of what a public library is and should be, and I’m amazed public libraries manage to support both groups as well as they do with their limited resources. It means neither side is totally satisfied, but it’s still half a loaf. Of course, it helps that most of the people who grumble about taxes the most are the ones who probably depend on public libraries the least, certainly after their kids are out of 6th grade or so.

    However, the voting suburbanites are starting to feel the pinch as retirement looms, many of them are being whipped up into a frenzy over government waste, and the anti-government demagogues will soon cast their eye towards the public library. We can make a case for connecting people to the internet access needed to get jobs and move up, and perhaps limited education support. But are the retiring boomer taxpayers who may find themselves wandering into the public library for the first time in years going to be interested in funding collections of Ska CDs or steampunk’s greatest hits? They’ve assumed they were paying taxes for the library of their imagined childhoods, with some computers and wifi thrown in. A “free second-hand bookshop” reality may well come as a shock, particularly in redder states. As cool as i personally would find the public library you describe, there’s a fine line between understandable-if-dated and subcultures from another planet.

  5. Annoyed Librarian says:

    By all means get rid of the fines!

    If bestsellers are no longer available in libraries, it could be the end of public libraries, I suppose. Or this could just be the crisis du jour. There’s always some sort of crisis facing libraries.

    If providing bestsellers and current DVDs is the only purpose of public libraries, then they will disappear. While suburbanites wouldn’t vote to fund Ska CDs, I wouldn’t vote to fund an institution that existed solely to entertain people. I’ve been arguing for years that public libraries need to promote a larger purpose than supplying bestsellers and videogames.

  6. Usage Shumusage says:

    Usage doesn’t equal support–no matter if your library has LPs, CDs or DVDs–people will use what they want. They may even come to the library in increased numbers. But will they necessarily support the library come tax time? Not likely. So–how do libraries get support as well as use? Should they meet people at their point of need? Customize services? Stop puppeteering cheesy ALA initiatives?

  7. Oh, I agree. It’s a conundrum that’s as old as public funded libraries, and one that I don’t have the answer to. Libraries can return to a focus on providing the “right” resources and support to nourish a well-educated populace, but we risk alienating those who see education as a private good rather than a public one, not to mention people who have far more “edutainment” choices and don’t neccessarily want to go to the public library to be preached at. That model also sets us up as arbiters of culture, and we need to be prepared for attacks from both right and left.

    Ultimately, those attacks were why public libraries moved to the current ‘Give ’em what they want’ model, but that’s harder to justify in tough budget times, and harder to afford as culture’s tail grows longer. And ultimately, I agree with you that entertainment’s an intellectually and socially bankrupt use case for public libraries. What should the modern public library be, and how do we make it appealing to more people without betraying our core mission?

  8. ChickenLittle says:

    Will and AL, good points about fines keeping people out of the public system! However, the bigger obstacle I see is “hold lists” at the public libraries. Hot material can have as many as 200-300 holds at any given time! In our expedient culture, no one has the patience for this, and our “Generation Yers”, have completely abandoned this model by buying and selling books on Amazon! Why place a hold when you can buy a bestseller on Amazon, and then re-sell in a month (and get your money back)?? Maybe the public library system could offer a “buy/sell” desk, that allows a formal process for what people are doing privately anyways?

  9. Public libraries are free except for those who cannot understand the concept of a due date.

    Our system charges a $1 look up fee for those who do not have their library cards with them when they check out. It is in place to encourage people to bring in their cards so they can use self check out because of staff shortages on the desk.

    I find it funny when I encounter people who turn their nose up and tell me to hold their books because they would rather drive back home and get their library card instead of paying the $1 fee.
    “It’s the principle… blah blah blah.”
    Time + Gas < $1
    Apparently, they don't have to pay $3+ a gallon for gas.

  10. Will Manley said, “So if you want to ‘free’ your library, get rid of fines.”

    AL said, “By all means get rid of the fines!”

    I love you both. I have paid hundreds of dollars in fines. I should blog about it one day. I have a picture of the pile of gold coins I piled up just to pay a single fine.

  11. stealthisbook says:

    I can see urban libraries with well-connected branches trying this sort of thing. Rural and small town libraries are often under just the same budget constraints but must provide a broader selection since they are the only available resource for academic and bestseller reading. For example, in my town the nearest bookstore is a Borders (that’s going out of business) and it’s 15 miles away. Seniors and students don’t have the mobility to make that kind of trip.

    It’s amazing that the usual conservative/anti-tax middle class crowd that usually opposes library funding is somewhat reversed in our rural situation. Home-school families regularly denude the shelves, stay-at-home churchgoing republican moms are active with story hour, and farmers drop in for coffee and news every morning. It’s the more educated, liberal leaning professionals that use our little town as a low-tax, low property value bedroom community that shoot down any new funding.

  12. ElderLibrarian says:

    Mr. Manley: the day may come that writers go directly to their readers, but I still get requests for the library to buy cheap mass market paperbacks, so people are still looking for “free”.

    Dear AL and others: I am not surprised to hear about so-called educated suburbites being so willing to throw libraries and information under the bus. I remember well when these same readers believed that Dan Brown was writing history and not a suspense novel. They have no real use for knowledge.

  13. people always vote to spend someone else’s money.

    and AL, it’s not so much the free computer as the free electricity. we have people who nap at our computers as their phones, pdas, toothbrushes, etc, recharge with library-supplied electricity. and I swear I saw a guy drag in a 200-foot extension cord he used to recharge his Chevy Volt.

  14. Popular DVDs, obscure indy films, documentaries, boring and weird foreign films, bestsellers, esoteric fiction, gardening and craft books, travel books, philosophy and religion, picture books, teen vampire novels, etc. etc…

    Most libraries are not on one extreme (nothing but popular garbage) or the other (bizarre & hard to find stuff) but right in the middle. Middle class suburbanites are (usually) satisfied with their hobby books and popular fiction, the semi-/illiterate get their DVDs, the unique people get their left-field fiction or graphic novels, parents get books for their kids.

    A little for everyone…sounds exactly like all the public libraries I’ve been to and worked at! Get a good and responsive collection development librarian and a public that actively requests books and you have the modern public library. The model is mostly fine as it is.

  15. A person must be really high, sick to death of working with people in libraries, or more likely just being provocative to suggest that the content of our collections don’t matter as long as they are free and that we should reject popular materials and instead, specialize in collecting things most people don’t want. My experience with teens is that most like new stuff, not retro. Boy, are some academic librarians sheltered.

  16. Randal Powell says:

    I like this post. Every public library should have a collection of quality old material that is not locked down in a vault. Fiction, and much non-science nonfiction, dates very well and should not be cavalierly tossed out.

    Personally, I like a forked approach to public library development. Keep the best of the old and develop particular expertise in a culturally significant area, such as 1960s science fiction or 1930s jazz or something. At the same time, help the community to transition into a technology-driven economy by providing good computer equipment, good technology classes, and even access to cutting-edge technology like a 3D printer.

    By the way, there was an article linked on Slashdot today about the future of public libraries. Simply put, the author advocates turning a few public libraries into technology labs so that youth can develop their technical, creative, and entrepreneurial skills. I don’t agree with his grim predictions, but I do agree with the basic idea of helping people to develop these skills.

  17. Techserving You says:

    I haven’t gotten past the first line of this post yet, but I would like to ask a question. I am a long-time fan of this blog. I have noticed that Will Manley is now a frequent commenter, and AL, you often ignore other substantive comments and end up in a “conversation” with Will in the comments section. Is this what this blog has come to? A “famous” (ha ha) librarian starts commenting and so now the blog is more of a dialogue with him? Is this by design, or did Will really happen upon the blog and start commenting and since he has his own column in Booklist (if she still does…) he’s considered to have an important view?

  18. Techserving You says:

    If HE still does! Sorry, Will. ;-)

  19. bluerose says:

    I actually find most of this post quite odious in its sneering at “popular culture.” I ask again: show me the border between entertainment and culture.

  20. Techserving…”famous librarian”…nice oxymoron.

  21. bluerose says:

    So who decides what the “best” books are? The AL?

    OK, AL: the best for what? After he’s spent all day typesetting Mahmoud Darwish in Arabic, what do you think my partner should read? if he reads Freddy the Pig, is he failing to assimilate “culture” and “ideas”? Does he become one of your undeserving poor, your inveterately redneck, or one of your whitebread middlebrow masses yearning to read free, a cheapskate (because there isn’t much money in Darwish typesetting, is there?)

    Are you saying that the stuff you want to read should be free? That we should pay for yours but you shouldn’t have to pay for ours?

    (Or you could think about the fiscal crunch for public services. Is it a crisis of expenditure or revenue? Why?)

    BTW: the other way you can explain computer usage at public libraries is that people have become so poor they can’t replace broken machines, or pay for printer cartridges, or, being laid off after 30 years and still needing a job, have come new to the requirement to apply online for everything, have no computer skills, and have to start at the only place that has both free computers and a mission/requirement to educate the public in their use.

    Or they might have to download and print their own pay-stubs, the corporate cheapskates they work for no longer bothering to cover this expense themselves; they might want to log their door-to-door selling hours; they might want to print their bank satements, having no computers (see above), or pay their bills online (see above).

    If we are more various than you would like, that’s too bad.

    And you still haven’t explained the difference between entertainment and culture. Try “The Odyssey” vs “Weeds”. That’s a nice one.

  22. Annoyed Librarian says:

    Oh, bluenose, you are so easily offended. It must make life difficult at times. The distinction isn’t between entertainment and culture, but between popular or mass culture and either folk or high culture. If you don’t already appreciate the difference between mass culture and high culture, there’s no use discussing it. Asking for the difference is like asking for the price of something. If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

  23. FinallyaLibrarian says:

    “the corporate cheapskates they work for no longer bothering to cover this expense themselves”

    But I thought we are ALL supposed to use lest paper which uses less trees which helps the envirnment.

    Don’t get me started on how so many folks today are absically socialists and are not educated enough (we don’t teach capitalism vs communism anymore even though communism lost) in basic politics and economics.

    As far as eliminating fines, how else will some flakes learn to be responsible for their own actions? I work in a PL in a highly transient area (SE FLA) and between the segment that is just passing through and the cheapskates who are retired we would take even more of a finacial hit if there were not fines. We do not block a patron until they reach $5 BTW. As it is, the DVDs fly out the door anyway.

    The other comment about folks who are out of work and do not own (working) computer/printer is valid. The corporations are using online applications to save money and to filter out people that would not cut it for reasons such as English proficiency, general literacy, and computer skills. Not to be cruel, but I do not blame them, I likely would do the same if a CEO. How long has the media been saying “it’s a digital world, you need computer skills”? So, instead of going to the library during the easy times and learning computing, they just watched TV.

    We have computer classes, and I’m a trainer (since DOS 1.0!) so know of what I speak. Unfortunately, most of those attending our classes are retired and they really do not NEED to learn computers, they are just trying to keep up with the grandkids and are bored. If we charged for the classes very few would attend.

    This is the next wave of need in our culture. Entertaining bored, underfunded, politically-active boomers. And you think public libraries will go away? Are you nuts?

  24. FinallyaLibrarian says:

    Sorry for the typos.

  25. bluerose says:

    AL: If you can’t explain it [the difference between high culture & popular culture], you don’t know it. Or: there might not be one, today’s high culture being yesterday’s popular culture.

    Which is a separate question from why public libraries should only provide high culture (as you conceive it) – i.e. why we should all pay taxes to support your taste, exclusively?

  26. Lots of great comments here.

    First off, getting rid of fines does not make sense. Fines are so small as they are right now that any publicity/good will/trade off ideas associated with doing away with them would not outweigh the extra hundreds of bucks or so that libraries see from. I know I said they are small so the thinking “Well then just get rid of them because the amount libraries collect is small too” but giving away revenues sources is not really a good idea right now and, really, no one who we are trying to target will notice or care.

    Also, once the backward thinking stereotypical librarians (I know I know not all of you are I understand that) retire into the sunset, the opportunity will be there for public libraries as we know them to truly transform themselves, and I think it needs to happen. Change is tough and requires of course money but also will power and advocacy, but steering libraries towards the needs of the future (clean energy, bio-technology research, real world education, responsible financial planning) will be the way to maintain not only their existence but their growth and relevancy. I do not necessarily know how but I do know that libraries need to move with the current, not try to stay anchored. THe love affair with the quaint book-driven librry may need to do. I don’t want it to but it may have to be. Maybe make libraries more like a community center or Starbucks or local gym or think tank; appeal to the future decision makers, not necessarily the ones now who are on their way out.

    We have a pretty good amount of ppl, mostly baby boomers but also young parents who support and believe in libraries. But I’m 28 and a lot of my peers don’t know about or care about libraries (it’s the parking lot to leave your vehicle for the carpool trip to the bar) and when they get to be the elders of our society, trouble may reign for libraries. So really the library needs to become…what? Something else in addition to providing Web access and books? Maybe the public library does not need to change but the librarian as a job itself. No one is coming for face to face reference help in the future.

  27. Randal Powell says:


    Public libraries should have both substantive, intellectual books and easy-to-read bestsellers. I think that the issue here is that the standard practice at some public libraries in recent times has been to exclusively focus on the later. That would not have gone over well back in the day when the supporters of public libraries had a very clear vision of educating and bettering the community.

    This belief is reflected in the requirement that librarians have a bachelor’s degree before their library “training”. Early supporters of American public libraries believed that a college educated person would be better able to discern what materials and programs would aid the economic and intellectual development of the community given finite resources. Whether this approach has been sufficiently successful to warrant further support is questionable. But until recently, few would have questioned the central purpose of libraries and librarianship.

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