Betting on the Book

SteveThis guest blog is written by Steve Coffman, Vice President, LSSI. He can be reached at or 707-206-5425. Mr. Coffman expressed these views at the Future of Libraries Institute in Vancouver in November.

Get over it. The library is about books. Celebrate it. Exploit it. Don’t abandon it.

Post-Print Futures?

It has become a familiar refrain among many of the library ‘digiterati’ in the past few years that in the future, libraries will no longer be about books. Many of our library patrons might find such pronouncements laughable, but to be fair, it is easy to see why library ‘futurists’ might be a little concerned about associating the institution too closely with books.

If the ‘digital shift’ – as Library Journal likes to call it – continues, and someday soon people are reading everything from the Bible to the Kama Sutra, Pat the Bunny to Goodnight Moon on their iPads, phones, and tablets – there will be but little use for the library as we have known it. If it all goes digital, libraries’ two primary functions in the book distribution chain – collecting a lot of books together in one place and making them available for free (or inexpensively, since we still have to pay something for them in our taxes) – will both be better handled by commercial providers. You can already see this happening. Google, Amazon and Apple offer a far larger selection of digital titles than any library, and a large percentage of those titles are available for free – either because they are out of copyright or because the publishers and authors are giving them away. Those that do cost are really cheap and getting cheaper all the time. The average price of a eBook bestseller was just a little over $7.00 in 2013 and it has been steadily declining over the past several years. And if a library-like lending model is still needed in the face of such plenty, then services like Oyster, Amazon, Scribd and others are experimenting with Netflix-like subscription models for books that would give unlimited access to hundreds of thousands of books for about the same amount as the average household pays in taxes to support the library. So futurists have a right to be worried about books and libraries – because there clearly won’t be much need for us if everything does go digital.

The problem is the new roles they are proposing for us in a ‘post-print’ future don’t have much of a chance at success, either. All kinds of ideas have been put forth, but generally they center around the hope that roles we performed in our libraries using books and information can be parlayed into valuable services when our communities no longer need our books – or when we are no longer in charge of providing the books. Maybe because we helped people create things using the information in our collections, we can turn ourselves into ‘makerspaces’ or creative commons and help people use 3D printers, laser printers and other machines when they no longer need our collections. Maybe because we helped bring people together to discuss important issues raised in our books, we can continue to serve as ‘centers of civic engagement’ or catalysts for those kinds of discussions once our books are gone. Because our crack reference librarians once helped people find information in our collections, perhaps we can serve as ‘knowledge navigators’ or some other similarly highfaluting synonym, and help people find information on the Web when they no longer need our reference collections. There have been lots more suggestions of a similar nature. The problem with all of them is that – perhaps more than any other institution – the library is defined by books and the buildings that house them. Yes it is true, we perform all of the roles above and many more – using our books and published information. But take away those books and collections, and we share those roles with many. Without books, for example, what makes our ‘makerspaces’ or creative commons different from that at a science museum, or an Exploratorium, or something a community college might set up? Without books how do our ‘centers of civic engagement’ and programs and discussions differ from those going on at the local community center, or church, or the meeting rooms at city hall or a local community agency? Without books, how do our ‘knowledge navigators’ differ from any of the hundreds of thousands of researchers, journalists, analysts, lawyers, teachers, freelance writers, professors, and other knowledge workers out there who are just as capable of finding and evaluating information on the Web as we are? We are fooling ourselves mightily if we believe that a few reference courses and an MLS degree are enough to somehow give us special research powers. On the contrary, people came to us for reference assistance because we had the collections and the information. Once that information migrated to the Web, then all kinds of people with all kinds of degrees were helping people to ‘navigate that knowledge.’ And the same is true for every other role we perform. What makes us unique is not the roles we perform, but where we perform them … IN A LIBRARY … using very specific types of tools – BOOKS and PUBLISHED INFORMATION. Take us out of our libraries and away from books, and we are just more faces competing in a very large crowd of knowledge workers all trying to do the same thing.

Nothin’ But Books

So, we’ve seen there’s not much future for us in books if everything goes digital. And any solution that takes librarians out of the library and away from the books and information that have been our raison d’etre from the very beginning is unlikely to have much of a chance of success either.

I suggest we take the opposite tack – and stop trying to reinvent ourselves and to run away from who we are and what we do, as we have for the past while – and focus on books for a change.

I’m not talking about eBooks either – we all know who can do a better job with those.

I’m talking about real, physical, print-on-paper books. The kind that publishers can’t refuse to sell to you. The kind that don’t cost 3x their retail price. The kind that we own outright. The kind that people are still streaming through our doors to get.

Books are what people think of when they think about us, so we won’t need a big marketing campaign to convince them of what we do. A recent OCLC study showed that in 2010 fully 75% of the public thought first of books when they thought of libraries – up from 69% five years earlier — despite all of our attempts to convince them otherwise. Other studies consistently show the same thing – the most recent Pew study released this December showed that people thought that ‘books and media’ were the most important service offered by libraries – far above internet access, help applying for government services or help applying for a job. A recent study of Miami residents found that the “vast majority of users go to the library to borrow books or DVDs — and not to use the internet or other equipment.” Robert Ladner, the President of Behavioral Science Research that conducted the Miami study, said that “We can talk all we want about virtual libraries — the fact here is that people who come to the library come because they want to take out something that they can have in their hand.” (

Finally, books are what libraries have a lot of. Google, Amazon and Apple may be the ‘big kahunas’ of eBooks, but when it comes to print nobody beats libraries. In the US alone, public and academic libraries hold more than 2 billion physical books in 20,000 buildings – a number no commercial establishment can come close to matching.

And it’s not like people have suddenly lost interest in books and now only want 3D printers or something. In the US, more books are being published today that at any time in our history. In 1880 there were 2,076 titles; by 1950, that number had grown to 11,022; by 2000, that number had increased 10-fold to 122,028; and by 2009, it had tripled again to 347,178. These are just titles put out by legitimate commercial publishers; they do not take into account the 100,000s of self-published titles that are now flooding the market.

Nor are these books just sitting around in warehouses. In 1990, the US sold 995 million books, or about 4.4 per capita. By 2009, that number had more than tripled to 3.1 billion or more than 10 books for every man, woman and child in the US. So people are clearly still interested in books.

And despite all of the hype about eBooks, the vast majority of these titles are still being published and read in print, and there are now increasing signs they may continue to be for the foreseeable future. Because the much anticipated Digital Shift seems to have petered out sometime in 2013. Using data from the Association of American Publishers, Nicolas Carr (Rough Type notes that the growth rate of eBook sales – which had been trending downward since 2010 – effectively fell to 0% in 2013. Carr notes that the “anemic growth in the eBook market, calls in to question the ‘digital revolution,’” and he speculates that eBooks may become a niche market, supplemental to print, much as audio books have. In October of this year, the Book Industry Study Group released figures showing that eBook sales may actually have declined a little in 2013, as have the number of people buying and reading them on a weekly basis. It is early days yet, but as of now, print books still account for 80% of everything published, and if these numbers mean anything, they may continue to do so for some time to come.

So Do We Just Keep On Doin’ What We’ve Been Doin’?

Ok, so there seems to be some future in books and in traditional library services. Does that mean we can just keep on “doin’ what we’ve been doin’” for the past several hundred years?

Not quite.

First, we need to stop apologizing for what we are and what we do. Look at what happens when you put the phrase “more than just books” into Google. It turns up links to hundreds of libraries who think that trying to manage, curate and provide access to the world’s published information is somehow not enough. Librarians in Europe are currently engaged in an actual campaign to get the European Parliament to adopt an official resolution that “Libraries today are about more than just books” ( The fact of the matter is, if we take our mission seriously, it is plenty big enough. There is no reason for us to feel that books are somehow not enough, or that we have to add other tasks and purposes that only distract our attention and confuse our patrons. If we are serious about being libraries, our catch phrase ought to be “we are all about books;” if you put that into Google, you just turn up a bunch of bookstores.

Next libraries need to do a better job focusing on curation and discovery. With 300,000 – 400,000 titles per year being published in the US alone, finding the good ones among them is becoming more and more difficult. That is especially true since many of the online tools – like collaborative filtering and automated recommendation engines that many of us are paying thousands of dollars for – don’t seem to work very well. A recent study by the CODEX group found that only a small percentage of people actually discovered a book they didn’t know about online (1.9% social media, 6% online retailers), while the best place to discover a new book was at a ‘bricks and mortar’ bookstore (26%), where readers could browse books on the shelves. The problem is, physical bookstores have been having a hard time of late with Borders going out of business, Barnes & Noble dumbing down its format to focus more on toys and games, and independents still struggling to compete with Amazon and what’s left of the chains. There is some question just how many physical bookstores may be around in the future. However, there is one place where you can still count on seeing lots of books together on shelves, and that’s at a library. The sad thing is, libraries have done very little to really develop this service for our readers. In most cases, our catalogs only allow readers to discover books we actually own – a very small fraction of the millions of titles available, and the only way we allow readers to get them is to borrow them from us. They’re out of luck if they’d like to buy their own copy – print or electronic — or even download one of the millions of free eBooks, if the title is not in our catalog. If we really want to do discovery right, we need new catalogs that can show readers not just what’s in our buildings, but what’s available in the entire bibliographic universe, and we need to offer our readers a variety of options for getting them: borrowing them from us; suggesting we purchase a copy for the library collection; downloading free eBooks; allowing them to purchase their own copies of print or electronic books from affiliated retailers. Likewise, readers who discover a book on our shelves should be able to scan its barcode and be shown similar titles, whether or not we own them, and given the option to borrow the title, or download the free e-version, if one is available, or purchase their own print or electronic edition. Those 2 billion books sitting on library shelves are a pretty valuable asset, but if we are going to leverage it effectively, we need new tools that allow us to link what we have to the rest of the bibliographic universe – so readers can use libraries as an entry point to the entire world of books – not just those we own. And we need to allow our patrons to get those books any way they want, not just borrow them and bring them back.

Another way we can improve discovery is to do a better job hand-selling To do that well we need to do a few things that we seem to have lost sight of recently. We need to get back to hiring people who know and love books, because those are the kind of patrons who are walking through our doors. They ought to be able to expect a staff who understands their needs, shares their enthusiasm, and can truly help them out without first having to look it up in Novelist or some online reader recommendation site (most of which don’t work). Too often in my career in libraries, the real book discussions and recommendations I’ve seen going on have been with the clerks at the circulation desk – the librarians were often too interested in trying to demonstrate databases or show somebody how to use a browser to be bothered with actual book titles. If we are about books, our model ought to be Nancy Pearl or other good readers advisory librarians, or the clerks at a good indie bookstore not the Tech Guy at the Apple Store. Secondly, we need to make sure that the staff know and understand the collection, and the only way to do that is to work with it. There are no pages at bookstores. Each bookseller works and shelves in a section of the collection so they become familiar with what’s there, what’s moving and what’s not and can answer questions and make recommendations for customers wandering by. Our customers deserve staff that are at least as good and as knowledgeable as the clerks they can find at a good independent bookstore – and the only way to do that is to hire readers and get them out from behind desks and working with our collections and our patrons.

Of course, if we are going to be ‘about books’ we have to spend a bit more money on them. One ugly fact many people – including many librarians – do not know is that public libraries spend only a very tiny amount of our budgets on books or materials of any kind. In the US, the average is now below $0.12 of every budget dollar. Just for a little contrast here, Netflix spends 55.9% of its money on the movies it loans to us. Netflix doesn’t have our buildings to maintain, but it shows how much companies – who must have what people want to stay in business – are willing to spend to maintain good collections.

Worse, the percentage libraries spend on materials has been declining for the past 60 years, even as the number of books published and available for purchase has been exploding. In 1950, there were 11,000 titles published and libraries were spending an average of 25% of their budgets to purchase them. An average large public library (serving populations of 100,000 or more) could afford to buy 4 copies of everything that came out that year. In the past 60 years, while the number of titles published has increased over 3100%, our book budgets have declined by more than 50%, and the same library that could afford to buy 4 copies of everything in 1950, could only afford to buy 6% of the total titles published in 2010 – and that’s assuming they were only buying single copies.

The fact of the matter is, it’s hard to be about books or anything else for that matter when we are spending so little on content – especially when there is so much more content available than ever before.

Finally, if we are going to accomplish any of this, libraries need to do a better job learning to say ‘NO’. People often confuse innovation with saying ‘yes’ — it’s the ‘let’s just let a thousand flowers bloom and we’ll just pick the hardiest’ strategy. Ask any gardener, and they’ll tell you that approach just gets you a weed patch.

Innovation, as Steve Jobs once pointed out is “saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is about saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things” (

In recent years, libraries have gotten pretty good at frittering away our limited resources on dozens or even hundreds of new initiatives that have little to do with our primary purpose. Sometimes it seems the library has never met a program it didn’t like, no matter how remotely connected with books and reading. And if it involves some sort of new electronic technology, so much the better. One example is the current ‘makerspace’ craze, but there are plenty of others – video gaming for teens, employment development centers, entrepreneurial incubators, social service centers for the homeless; hell, one library in Scotland has even begun offering pole dancing classes.

I don’t have anything against pole dancing or these other programs per se, but I think this kind of ‘mission creep’ – or ‘mission running rampant’ might be a better description – can cause some significant problems for libraries.

First, we often lack the skills and expertise to do these things right. Pole dancing comes to mind, but initiatives like business incubators, job development centers, even literacy programs – often duplicate services better offered by others in the community –schools, economic development agencies, universities, or community service organizations. We can support all of these programs by making sure we have the books and information their participants will need, but we generally lack the resources and expertise to pull them off effectively by ourselves.

More importantly, we hardly have adequate resources to accomplish our basic mission to say nothing of chasing after every new project that comes along. We’ve already talked about the problem with our materials budgets, but the same inadequate funding affects all of our other resources as well. Staff – who are already stretched short — can’t be helping pick out the best books for your collection, if they are busy trying to help somebody fix their resume. And space and staff time and money taken up with Makerspaces and video gaming arcades are not available for collections.

Libraries have always had limited resources (less than 2% of the civic budget overall) and our job of collecting, managing and making accessible the world’s published literature is bigger, more expensive, and more time-consuming than it ever was before. We’ve only got enough resources to do one thing well. If we are to have a chance at succeeding as libraries we have to stop hedging our bets and focus all of our resources on collections.

A Way Forward

For the past half century libraries and librarians have been struggling to figure out our role in the digital transformation of the once tidy world of books and learning.

The dust has not yet settled and questions remain to be answered especially whether people will still read print or whether everything will go digital, and, if so, how long before it does.

But there are some things we do know. eBooks and digital formats have allowed competitors like Google, Amazon and many others to enter a market that had once been ours alone. If everything does go digital, they will be the new libraries and we will be out of a job. It’s that simple. However, we shouldn’t lose too much sleep over that prospect, because it will mean books and the world’s knowledge and literature will be broadly and cheaply available to anyone who wants it – which is what libraries were designed to do in the first place. So our mission will have been accomplished – it’s just that the world will no longer need us to do it.

But just because there’s competition, does not mean we have to fold our tents and cede the field, or try to reinvent ourselves to become something different than what we are. There’s a lot we bring to the table. We have our books, and those could be more important than ever if people are still reading print. We have thousands of buildings and millions of people still coming into them. We have our brand – when people think about books, they think about us. And we have ourselves and the knowledge, experience, and reputation we’ve gained over a thousand years of working with books.

The real irony is that – like Dorothy in Oz – we’ve had these things all along – we just need to believe in them.

But if we are to be competitive – we must stop apologizing for what we are; we must celebrate it. We must take advantage of new opportunities to help people discover good books. We must serve as a link between the print and digital worlds, because our patrons inhabit them both. We must find ways to spend more on our collections. And we must not hedge our bets –with our limited resources we can’t afford to chase after every new idea that comes along, we must focus closely on doing one thing right – putting books in the hands of readers – and just say ‘NO’ to everything else.

If we do these things, if we make this bet; if we truly believe in books and in libraries and what they can do — then I think the odds are pretty good that libraries will continue to play a key role in helping put books and all that they represent – information, knowledge, learning, or just a darn good read – into the hands of readers for many years to come.

6 Responses to Betting on the Book

  1. Penny Grant January 22, 2014 at 12:02 am #

    As a retired library director, I have to say that I totally agree with Steve Coffman. Although futurists were predicting the “death of the book” and the “death of libraries” more than 30 years ago, they were wrong! People of all ages LOVE books! Yes, preschoolers, teens and seniors enjoy video games and Netflix – but all of us also love to turn the pages and read that most convenient and delightful of all modern infotainment mediums – the book! I’d bet on it!

  2. Rachel Van Riel January 23, 2014 at 12:32 am #

    I first attacked the slogan ‘much more than books’ 30 years ago! It’s a terrible message. It does nothing to tell new customers what you offer yet manages to insult all your current book customers at the same time! Would a restaurant advertise with ‘much more than food’ or a gym with ‘much more than fitness’? By all means offer enhancements but It’s insane to convey that you despise your core product. I don’t know any other profession that falls into this trap as much as librarians do. Thanks for a great piece.

  3. Anna Fernicola January 23, 2014 at 5:18 am #

    Hear, hear, Steve!
    Well said!
    I totally agree with your views on libraries, librarians and books.
    We SHOULD celebrate what libraries have stood for over the ages and what they still stand for even now: the actual written word, whether in manuscript or print, but the real, material book, not some virtual copy of it available in cyberspace. I’m a long-time school librarian at an all-boys school in Tokyo and I can attest to the fact that our students overwhelmingly prefer to get real printed books in their hands to ebooks. Nowadays, as in years past, our boys still get excited to be the first to read the new books as soon as they get put on our bookshelves!

  4. Helen Leech January 23, 2014 at 5:28 pm #

    I’ve got to take issue, slightly, with the assumption that at some point in the future everything’s going to be digital, and how are public libraries going to survive?

    My issue is that everything HAS already gone digital, and we’re doing very nicely, thank you. Traditional use of our libraries may be dropping – and we’re fighting hard to stop this – but virtual use is rising steadily by about 20% a year, and by our accounts our number of virtual visitors has actually overtaken our physical visitors. People are using our website, catalogue, online resources and ebooks in ever-increasing numbers. I’m not saying we’re complacent, because we’ve got a LONG way to go in ensuring we’re giving people what they need and keeping our customers, but while everybody’s lamenting falls in book issues nobody’s celebrating our virtual successes. People love books and reading, and people are loving the way that books and reading are becoming ever more accessible online.

  5. Laura Harris January 24, 2014 at 12:00 am #

    Thanks for your positive article about libraries being centered on books. What would “Pat the Bunny” or pop-up books be on an e-reader? Nothing soft to pat and nothing to pop up.

    However, I’d also add periodicals to our core services. Many people come to libraries to read magazines they cannot afford to subscribe to themselves, or to read a specific article that someone has recommended to them. We might try to subscribe to more substantive periodicals and those published by small publishers that aren’t able to sell very much on the general market.

    The same also applies to small book publishers and university presses. Many of these books are suitable for the layperson and deserve much greater circulation than they currently get.

  6. Vickie Kline February 12, 2014 at 6:16 pm #

    Looking outside the library, I suspect mass market publishing also is surviving because of the lack of a first sale doctrine for ebooks. Readers are often book sharers. Every hardcore reader I know has a network of sharers and knows what types of books each friend reads. Many book addicts* also have easy access to second-book stores and trade for credit and more books.

    * Digression: here’s my rule of thumb for book addiction – if you have a backlog of more than 200 unread books in your home, you’re probably an addict! Alternative version: If a major snow storm approaches, do you ask “Do I have enough books?” first or do you ask “Do I have milk and bread?” 🙂

    I’ve often wondered if ebooks would be more popular if the first sale doctrine applied. When I choose between electronic and paper, I often ask “who else will like this?” If I’m the only one, I go electronic; if I come up with a list of names, I buy paper.

    And yes, I do work in a library and borrow books there too!