Robin is one of my very favorite people at Twitter. She makes my day with her funny, sarcastic and often insightful commentary on most things in the world, especially books. So last week when I was in mid-rant about how annoyed I was that so many people didn’t seem to realize just how libraries worked and how much they do for communities that I used the moment to beg her for a guest blog and to my great delight she agreed. If you don’t follow her at twitter yet, you totally should! She’s @Tuphlos
When Lauren asked me to do a blog post on libraries, I was quick to agree but unsure of what I was going to say. I mean, other people have talked at length about how they are pillars of the community, and how they create readers, and lift up entire cities neighborhood branch by neighborhood branch. I didn’t fall in love with libraries because of their importance to society.
My love of reading didn’t start at the public library, it started at home. But any kid who loves to read quickly learns the route to the public library. You may start in one place, one section, but you quickly migrate to another. The subjects are endless. Pretty soon, you know exactly where to go when you want to know more about that, whatever “that” may be this week.
Most recently for me, the “that” I’ve discovered thanks to the library are juvenile/YA books. With all of the great adult books in the romance, fantasy and mystery genres, I had no time for reading outside of that. Not only do your favorite authors come out with new books yearly, but since I see a……healthy amount of titles, I never lack for new things to read. A co-worker suggested I try a book, based on what she knew I liked, and I checked it out from the library. Would I have bought a book, based solely on someone’s rec, in a genre I previously had no interest in reading? No. If it wasn’t for the library, I probably would have smiled, nodded, and gone on about my business. You can’t miss what you haven’t tried, right? Instead, I checked the book out from the library and loved it SO much, I bought it. And the other two books in the series. And when she started a NEW series this past fall, I bought it right away in ebook format. And then, because the cover is so beautiful and it is the kind of book you want to curl up with in print, I turned right around and bought a second copy in Hardcover. 5 sales. All from one library circulation. Most authors I haven’t tried before get checked out from the library. All of my favorites, that have moved to “auto-buy” status started off as library checkouts. Harlan Coben, Kelley Armstrong, Victoria Dahl, Cassandra Clare, George Pelecanos, Robert Crais, J.R. Ward, and yes, even Lauren Dane. There are plenty more authors that I “like” but don’t rush out to buy on release day. I may buy them eventually if I like that particular book, or I may never buy them. And, quite frankly, there are plenty of authors I’ve tried that I’m glad I didn’t have to spend money on. If I would have spent money and the same disappointing experiment, it might have put me in fear of buying other books for quite some time.
The knock on libraries, lately, has been that we are somehow stealing crumbs of profit from authors, publishers, and whoever else makes money in the book market. If we were getting the books for free, I could see the argument. Oh, don’t worry, I could still argue against that, but I would at least see the point. You have a product to sell, and we’re getting it for free and giving it away for free. Socialism! But, that isn’t the case. The reality is more â€“ costly. Libraries have a materials budget, and that budget is then used to purchase materials. Library patrons believe they are getting these things for free, but they aren’t really. They’ve just paid for them in advance, that’s all. Who knows what tax they use to fund libraries where you are, here the library budget is 80%+ funded with property taxes. We purchase, patrons check out. It’s a beautiful system, actually, but some find fault with it. There is a strange misconception out in the world that if it weren’t for libraries, authors would make a lot more money.
Now, it could be that some libraries are getting a deal that I’m not getting (and I need to know about this right away, if true!) but I buy one book and get exactly one book. If there is someplace where I can buy one and get five, please let me in on the secret! The reality is, though, that I never buy just one copy of anything. The non-fiction selectors will do that sometimes, but I never do it for fiction. We serve a community of 800,000+ people. If I think one book is good enough for all of Indianapolis, then I may as well not buy it at all. We don’t need it. That’s just my personal philosophy; your library’s mileage may vary. We pay for those books, and they are available to lend to the community. Now, if an individual loaned out their copy of a book to a friend would authors complain about that? I hope not, that would be silly. Do authors get upset and say if you wouldn’t have loaned out my book, your friend would have purchased their own copy? I think if you really believe that, you don’t know much about the book culture.
The book culture is about sharing. The book culture is about falling in (and sometimes out of) love with books. Readers talk, extensively, about breaking up with series and authors. There is a stop, though, between “I love this series” and “I’m done with this series” and that stop is: the library. Long running series would be a lot shorter without the library. When readers are tired of reading the same book June after June, they stop buying. New authors have come along they would rather spend their money on. But if the library has the book, they may make an effort to keep up if they still have some interest left in the tank. Maybe the last two books were horrible, but this one looks promising, so they’ll check it out from the library. If it works, interest may be re-ignited. If it doesn’t work, the breakup may be final. But do you really think people will keep buying books they have no interest in reading? Really?
Guess what? I don’t care if your last two books were horrible. I don’t care if this new one got the worst reviews of your writing career. I don’t care if you’ve killed and brought back more characters than a daytime soap. As long as someone in my community has an interest in your book, I’ll spend the money to have it in our library. It is my job to spend the money it takes to carry your book. And guess what else? If that book sits on the shelf (because everyone is tired of your series now) and never goes out, we don’t return it to the publisher. And guess what else? Even if your series goes out of print but someone loves it so much that they talk about it on NPR and 999 people now want to read it, we probably still have it; especially if it is part of a series.
I think it is pretty fair to start with the premise that you can’t read or listen to every book, watch every dvd or listen to every cd made. Libraries can’t buy in that amount either, but with an entire community kicking in funds, we can certainly buy more than a single individual. Who has the space to keep up with that much material? Who has the time to identify when and where that material will be available? You’ll hear about Franzen and Patterson all day long, but we bought over 40,000 titles (not items) in 2010. Where on earth could one person hear about all those?
Now, you may be thinking: but I don’t care about 40,000 items! I’ll find out about the ones I care about. Somehow. Eventually. That may be true. But the beauty of libraries isn’t just about fostering a love of reading. It’s also about fostering a curiosity about, well, anything and everything. In fact, I love the words “I didn’t know the library had this!” I just took a look at our new materials shelves today, things that have just arrived and are waiting to be processed, and found this sampling of things:
Landscaping with Stone (I mean, I guess you COULD go out and buy every book on this topic when you’re thinking about, well, landscaping with stone….)
Cooking for Dogs: new recipes from the Dog’s Deli. I had no idea that dogs even HAD a deli, much less that there were cookbooks from it. If I had a dog, they’d be so happy by this news. Even though I don’t have a dog, I picked the book up anyway! When I need to give a gift to a dog-lover, I’ll probably remember this one.
National Geographic’s Inside the Milky Way Sounds cool, yeah, but do you see this in your regular travels? If it hadn’t been on that shelf, I wouldn’t have known it existed.
The Tillman Story I had a curiosity. I forgot about it. I have a curiosity again.
Love the Beast Wha? Really? Eric Bana?
Caribbean Food Made Easy Definitely a try before buy. If you love it, you’ll want your own copy. If it isn’t for you, you take it back. Actually, cookbooks are one of our libraries highest circulating non-fic areas. There are so many, you can’t possibly buy them all. Where would you put them? What if you hate them? Even if you were to JUST buy the ones on the type of cuisine you like, using only organic ingredients and using a slow cooker (set on high with a timer and an LED indicator light) there would be too many!
Complete guide to growing your own fruits and berries Perhaps in the area of your yard you haven’t already landscaped with Stone?
West Town Tavern Contemporary Comfort Food Because why should dogs have the best cookbooks?!
Michaelangelo: the drawings of a genius picking this up was my exercise for the day. Not something I would have seen in my ordinary, every day book travels. Hell, I work in a library, in the collection development department and I STILL didn’t know this book existed until it got here. Pretty to look at, but not something I need to keep around forever.
The point is — libraries let people in on the secret of all the great books that will never see the light of day on a bestseller list. The people who still think National Geographic is *just* a magazine will discover that’s not true anymore, thanks to their library. The person who wants to landscape their yard, decorate their interior, serve a delicious and traditional Hungarian meal, will get help doing each of those things thanks to their library. The person who watches Oprah in the morning, listens to NPR in the afternoon and finishes the day with Jon Stewart may not be able to afford (in money OR space) to buy all the books they’ll hear about over the course of that day. But they can have access to them, thanks to their library.
Libraries have survived phonos, cassettes, cds, photocopy machines, beta vs. vhs, dvd vs. divx, blu-ray, and will survive ebooks. We hope you’ll be with us.