Should public libraries stop buying paperbooks?

Should public libraries stop buying paperbooks?

Free public access to books is an amazing thing. 

In the United States, it’s pretty much expected that even small towns will have a public library.  More than once, I’ve gone into a town and just asked somebody where the library was when I needed information.

One time, I’d gotten lost (on purpose…long story), and had no idea in which town I was.  I was with friends, and we just asked at a gas station where the library was, went in, and asked which town it was.  The librarian also guessed exactly how we had gotten there (we had driven around the bottom of the San Francisco Bay, west to east, without realizing it).

A while back, I was on jury duty, and we got a lunch break.  I wanted to jump on the internet…so I asked where the library was, got to it, and checked my e-mail.

Great, right?  All free, right?

Well, if I tell those stories to teenagers, they make no sense.  “Didn’t your GPS or cellphone know where you were?” “Couldn’t you check e-mail on your phone or laptop?”

Been in a library lately?  I was in one today.  Who do you see?  Teenagers and college age kids?  Or is it young kids and older people? 

It seems clear that the use of libraries is actually rising.  That makes some sense, in economically-stressed times. 

But are they checking out paperbooks?

That’s a tricky question.  I’ve seen defense of libraries based (in part) on how many people are using free library internet to look for jobs.  I have no question that having computers available with free internet is a benefit for a community.  My guess is that it may even be cost effective, but regardless, we need to ameliorate the digital divide by serving the have-nots.

That seems like a legitimate community function, even in a time of budget cuts.

But buying paperbooks?  Especially new fiction?

Let’s picture this.

Ten years ago, your city had an annual budget of $100 million.   Ten million of that went to libraries (I know, that seems like a lot for libraries).  Now, with the economic downturn (unemployment, loss of property values), you city has $75 million.

Pretty much everybody needs to cut.

What do you do with the libraries?

Have them closed more often?

I hate that!  Even thirty years ago, I was really mad when they starting closing the library in my town…I think, one day in the middle of the week.  They do that now for my local library…totally close it on Thursdays, maybe, and some days it’s open from noon to five.

Noon to five?  That may work for those folks looking for jobs, but what about Mom taking a kid after work?  What about a college student who wanted to go in the evening?

Well, you could cut back on staff…but libraries are not just piles of books.  The staff there…that’s one of the main reasons to go!  There’s nothing like a reference librarian…knowledgeable, helpful…magic!

How about fewer copies?  Instead of buying five copies of The Rule of Nine (paper list price…$26.00), you buy three.

But then, people have to wait for them.  Remember, more people are using the library…more people and fewer copies is a bad combination.

You have to look at the replacement copies you are buying of paperbooks…they wear out, they get lost and damaged.

Then there’s the property taxes…okay, maybe you get a break on that, but it’s a lot of maintenance and climate control on that much building space.

What else can you do?


First, there are no replacement costs…you buy, it you have it.

Then, there are a ton of freebies…how much has your library been spending buying Romeo and Juliet every year?

When you do buy licenses for new in-copyright books, it is much cheaper than buying paperbooks.

Let’s look at buying six copies of The Rule of Nine.

Paper list price = $26.00

Amazon paper price = $17.81

Total = $106.86

Six e-book licenses: $12.99.

That’s about 12% of the cost.

No degradation over time, either.

Now, of course, it isn’t quite that simple.

Many libraries are using EPUB with Digital Rights Management (DRM).  That leaves out Kindles.

Right now, Kindles are out anyway.  The Kindle doesn’t give you its Personal Identity, and libraries need that to control the use of the files (see my earlier post, But what would Marian say?).

But let’s say they could buy licenses for Kindle compatible and licenses for EPUB…that’s still a big savings.

So, let’s just say that the library could deliver the e-books in formats that people needed.

For people who need it, the library could have EBRs (E-Book Readers) and computers…some libraries have it.

Do they need paperbooks, too?

I’m not saying to get rid of the existing books…just stop buying them.  As they get destroyed, you don’t replace them.

Any books in the public domain would get digitized and made available.

Would you need children’s books?

That’s a tricky question.  They look okay on an iPad, but is having physical books important to make kids love books?

I’ll tell you, if I was in charge of libraries, I’d have to seriously consider stopping buying paperbooks.

I wouldn’t want to do that.  Ideally, every book would be available in every format.  But you can’t afford that…you are looking at trade-offs.

Oh, and that’s another point!  We wouldn’t need to buy separate large print books…that’s quite a savings!

Now, I’ll tell you what got me thinking about this.

Fox Chicago did an “undercover” story on libraries.  It was controversial, which I’m guessing is what they wanted.  I thought the undercover camera showing the unused aisle was silly, actually…they clearly weren’t in the new release section, and we only saw a few seconds.

Here, you can watch it yourself:

Are Libraries Necessary, or a Waste of Tax Money?

I’ll warn you, I had some trouble getting it to run, but it did eventually.

You can also read the

response of the Chicago Public Library Commissioner

I was curious:

Now, I’m sure a lot of you have opinions about this…I’d be more than happy to hear what you think.  🙂

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

13 Responses to “Should public libraries stop buying paperbooks?”

  1. tuxgirl Says:

    So, I have been to a library recently (in fact, a few in our area), but not to check out books. I went because our local library has a weekly “baby storytime” where there’s half an hour of singing and stories, and half an hour of play time for babies under 18 months. (They have another day in the week for 18 months to 3 years).

    As far as whether they should get rid of paper books, I guess it depends… I think that certain books need to stay as paper — particularly things like board books and other books for children. Board books, because I don’t think they’d want my daughter or other children her age using an iPad (or anything similar). Other children’s books… well, I have a different reason… I think if we move to ebooks too quickly for children, they will cease to be books. I’m afraid that children’s books will become interactive games that happen to have a storyline.

    The other thing to question is whether they will have enough devices available to fill the needs of all of their current customers. Most people don’t currently have ebook readers, and I don’t think we’re headed too quickly to everyone having them. If they will be able to lend out ebook readers, though, I think it would be good to get rid of paper books. The question then becomes, is it feasible for them to lend out readers…

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, tuxgirl!

      That’s a really key point…libraries are doing great things to get people into them, they are great social centers for a community, and certainly havens. Many libraries do “story hours” for kids, and bring authors and others in to speak. But that’s not connected to having paperbooks in there…well, it is the “theme”, but you could do story hours even if you just had e-books.

      I fully expect we’ll have really kid-friendly EBRs in the next few years. It wouldn’t take too much: they’d need to be drop-proofed much more than they are now, and yes, you’d need color. Outside of that, they aren’t too hard to run for kids.

      Libraries do lend EBRs, and in terms of how many people have them…you don’t need everybody to have them, just the ones likely to use the library. My guess would be that the percentage of heavy readers who have EBRs is much stronger than the casual set (who never go to a library now).

  2. Oogie Says:

    I stopped going to libraries when they became after school daycare centers. The noise level is unreal and the librarians are of the opinion that it’s ok because they would rather have the kids there than out on the street.

    Libraries are places for research and reading. Not daycare centers and shouldn’t have toys (yes they actually lend toys) and play areas. Nothing wrong with teaching kids that there are places to play and places that where they cannot play. Worked fine with my kids.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Oogie!

      I do understand that one! There has been a sense that expanding the audience and the traditional role of a library has been…necessary (not that it’s inherently bad). It is the “post-shush” era. Part of the issue? Traditional after-school options have become unavailable in many places, and the library as community center has stepped into the gap. This “mission creep” can be seen as a degradation of the original purpose, but there are attractions in becoming increasingly valuable to different demographics…and apparently, library visits are up.

      I’ve actually seen libraries with separate “quiet rooms”…

  3. Ganne Says:

    No, I don’t think libraries should stop buying paper books. Perhaps I’m spoiled – my local library is consistently rated at the top of the top 100 libraries in the US, so it is very good. I believe that public libraries should serve ALL the members of the public. Most people do not have e-readers and there are still lots that don’t have a computer in the home and who may be leery of ebook technology. I’m not saying that libraries shouldn’t provide ebooks, but paper books have many advantages, including high portability and ease of use. Also, there are still many people who tend to browse, which is much more difficult on an e-reader (even with free samples).

    I also think that there will always be a market for certain types of paper books – certain nonfiction reference books I find are easier to access on paper, cookbooks and craftbooks, likewise, and all children picture books are simply better on paper. I have 2 small children and if their favorite books were only on the computer or e-reader, they simply wouldn’t have as much access to them.

    I love my kindle, have had it since 2008 and have over 1000 ebooks on it, but like it or not, ebooks right now seem to be only for very heavy readers who can justify the cost of the ereader or will tolerate reading on a cellphone or computer. Yes, the market share of ebooks has risen exponentially, but that is because many heavy readers are embracing ebooks. The other 80% of the population has not and may never embrace ebooks. Libraries have to serve that population as well – including children, and people with limited literacy skills who are learning to read, and people reading in foreign languages (who may also be heavy readers, but I hope you get the gist of what I’m saying). Limiting materials to only those who can access an ebook would discourage or even block the access of those materials to a large portion of the people that libraries are designed to serve. This may change in the future (it probably will) but I don’t see it happening all that quickly.


    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Ganne!

      I completely understand your points…with unlimited resources, I would provide books in cuneiform tablets, if I could. 🙂 I’m not equating paper with cuneiform, but just saying that I would like to have all formats available (including professionally-read audiobooks).

      If the libraries could check out EBRs (E-Book Readers) as well as E-Books, would that affect how you feel? It wouldn’t surprise me if we see a push to make EBRs available to those in need, just as you see a similar push with computers in some places.

      I think right now that we see limitations to e-books that will vanish in the future with improved technology and innovation, just as you observe. Right now, paperbooks are inaccessible to a significant section of the community. If the technology for reference books and children’s books improves significantly, I think the greater accessibility of e-books (the increasing text size, autoturn, translation, external reference, and text-to-speech) will probably outweigh some of the paper advantages.

      I wouldn’t stop providing paperbooks right now…I don’t see that as viable, for the reasons you mentioned. Cutting back on new purchases, though…I’d have to give serious consideration to that.

      When onboard machine translation is available (or linked translation), that’s going to change the relationship of EBRs with people who speak multiple languages, or simply don’t read English (as will increased character sets).

      Thanks for a thoughtful comment!

  4. Kim Says:

    Our area has a lot of families who homeschool, (>1000 families in one county) and homeschoolers make extensive use of the library. It is not uncommon for our family to check out 8 or 10 books at a time to use as history or science resources. Many people make use of the library’s online request and renewal system here also. Wish they had had that when I was in school!

    Although there is something of a move towards more electronic media, I don’t think people are ready to give up having p-books available, especially childrens’ books. Some of our favorite resource book publishers are DK, Usborne and Kingfisher. Great books for visual learners, and it is great to be able to borrow them, as the cost of buying them all quickly adds up.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Kim!

      Those DK books look great, absolutely! If they were available to you on an adequate reader, that could show those colors and images clearly, it seems like that would be more convenient than going to the library. It’s great fun to flip through those sorts of books…but the cost of printing them (which affects that cost of buying them) has to be taken into consideration when we look at public resources.

      I wouldn’t give up on p-books, the way things are now…but I might look at reducing future purchases for public libraries.

  5. Dave Says:

    I live in a small town (pop @ 40,000) in Southern California. A few years ago the residents of our city voted to tax ourselves (30 years of property tax) to tear down our existing, outdated library, and build a new, state-of-the-art library. The building came in under budget and on time and is a focal point of our town. Each summer the library has a “Summer Reading Program” – here’s an excerpt taken from a recent City Manager’s Report:

    “Summer Reading Club – Week 2 Complete
    Registration for the club is still open to infants through adults. The program runs on a Sunday – Saturday schedule, with prizes changing each week. Infants have a 5-book-a-week requirement; youth in preschool through 1st grade are required to read 100 minutes per week; 3rd-12th grades are required to read 150 minutes per week. Registration and recording of minutes is done through By the end of week two, 1,743 people enrolled in the Summer Reading Club, 5,420 books have been read and 240,806 minutes have been spent reading! ”

    Library’s absolutely still serve a purpose!!

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Dave!

      No question, libraries serve a purpose. I’m not sure they wouldn’t continue to serve that purpose using e-books and EBRs (E-Book Readers). I wouldn’t eliminate existing p-books in the current circumstances.

      Libraries actually now serve several purposes…including community centers. I see a real value in having a place where strangers gather, and where education (and entertainment) is the goal. I thought the Fox Chicago video was a deliberately inflammatory piece…and that the premise wasn’t supported (especially by the two commentators).

      However, how libraries can continue to best serve the community is worthy of examination. I think it’s wonderful that your city built a new library…when you say state of the art, I assume internet access is part of it? Your library probably also makes e-books available to its patrons at this point…I would think that some of those recorded minutes came from people reading e-books (those sorts of programs are typically self-reported). It’s looking at that mix going forward that I’m suggesting.

  6. draegi Says:

    I never see the point of public libraries (for fiction books) uni/college libraries and reference libraries/archives I can completely understand, but libraries for fiction books are outdated. All the new titles are out already and all the old titles I can get for free on kindle – what’s the point?

    Libraries are good for children’s books (since reading kids seem to need 10 books a week at least) and computers as well as being a good community resource centre, but the best place to sort your fiction needs? No way.

  7. ianlibrarian Says:

    Interesting point here is that most e-books are simply not available to public libraries as the publishers refuse to let them have them. Those that are allowed are often charged at inflated prices. Why? Because the publishers fear that people will borrow them rather than pay for them. See

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