I’ve always assumed that most authors dislike public libraries. Certainly some people are getting books for free from the library that they otherwise would have bought themselves (I know I am).

I mentioned this to my wife the other day, and she pointed out that our central public library (before it was all but destroyed) once featured posters of successful authors promoting libraries and reading. Good point. I realized there were answers to be sought, and I proceeded to forget about it for a while.

But something was nagging me in the back of my mind. Every time I went to the library, I felt a little like I was doing something bad. I certainly wasn’t heeding the citizen’s call to CONSUME in this act, and I wasn’t supporting the author who wrote these books I was reading for free (assuming the library circulation numbers don’t mean much to an author’s pocketbook). But the ability to save $10 to $25 for each of the 2-5 books I read in a month is hard to resist.

So today I set out to learn what I could of how authors (and yes, even publishers) feel about public libraries. I’m not sure if I should blame a lack of content or just my poorly written Google queries, but I couldn’t find much on the subject.

Then I stumbled across a year-old post on Stephen J. Dubner’s Freakonomics blog. Dubner begins by suggesting that publishers might hate libraries (admitting that he’s probably wrong), pointing out that a library book that gets read by 50 people might have instead meant 10 sales if the library never existed.

He then goes no look at the other side of the coin, arguing that:

Beyond the copies that libraries themselves buy, you could argue that, in the long run, libraries augment overall book sales along at least a few channels:

  1. Libraries help train young people to be readers; when those readers are older, they buy books.
  2. Libraries expose readers to works by authors they wouldn’t have otherwise read; readers may then buy other works by the same author, or even the same book to have in their collection.
  3. Libraries help foster a general culture of reading; without it, there would be less discussion, criticism, and coverage of books in general, which would result in fewer book sales.

Dubner’s short post serves as a great starting point for a discussion amongst his commenters. Some of my favorite follow:

Posted by Boonton:

“…Many books have a very limited audience. The 20,000 copies sold to libraries may end up being a huge portion of the sales the books make. Libraries, then, are more friends to the publishers than potential enemies. This ties into #1. A really popular book is only going to loose so many sales to the libraries. Those few lost sales are probably worth it to publishers since the libraries represent millions in sales of less popular books.”

Posted by AdrianP:

“…I did a quick look around the net and in Canada (where I live), the total household spending on books was $1.1billion in 2001, and the total library spending was $1.4billion. If you eliminate libraries, do you really expect to see total book purchases double? I think that the biggest individual purchasers of books wouldn’t change since they probably don’t use the library that much, leaving the rest of the population that either doesn’t care enough about books to pay for them, or who doesn’t want to spend the money to buy them. The used market would do well (and authors would see none of those transactions), and reading in general would decline…”

Assuming there’s any truth to the above statements (I’d still like to see some real numbers from both publishers and 3rd parties), my 1st of the two areas to measure the worth of libraries is settled: “Are libraries good for authors?” (Yes.)

The 2nd area I wonder about is social value. Are libraries good for communities and society as a whole? It seems to me (and again, I have no numbers here) that book prices have not increased with average American wages. A $9 mass-market-paperback costs less than a DVD, and takes longer to finish too. Yet Americans of all classes seem to be buying plenty of movies. More people than ever before can can afford to buy books if they desire to do so.

Still, I know every penny helps, so we can still say that libraries help low-income families. But does providing low-income people and families with romance novels, action DVDs, and pop CDs really do anything to benefit society?

Freakanomics commenter “scunning” writes:

“One needs to separate efficiency from equity when thinking about public libraries. Public libraries exist for distributional equity reasons – to provide low-cost books to poor people so as to promote literacy for the sake of so-called public good. But is there any market failure that necessitates a public library? Does the market fail to produce the optimal amount of reading? It seems like most of the benefits of reading are internalized by the individual – in the form of the personal joy from the stories and ideas, and in the form of higher wages from the human capital enhancement. And where there are externalities, it seems it is mainly to families that those externalities lie, and not “society” as much. It’d be interesting to know if the cost of providing “free books” in the form of physical public libraries – which are inputs in a family’s production of literacy in their children, at the very least… – outweigh the private benefits to families…”

Are modern libraries’ social worth found only in providing free entertainment services to those who can’t afford it (including children who’s parents that can afford it chose not to) or otherwise have lost access to it (flood/fire/theft victims, travelers, etc.)? I know people use the reference materials at libraries, as well as self-help book and newspapers and magazines. And libraries also provide free computer services; but for every person I see at the library using the internet to look up jobs, education, or parenting advice, I see ten more on MySpace, in chat rooms, or looking up music lyrics.

Are we kidding ourselves when we say public libraries are an important part of healthy communities? Is this just semi-communist propaganda hidden within an American tradition? Do libraries really deserve to be publicly funded and placed up on such a high pedestal of required human decency? I’m not entirely sure.

Regardless, I can’t help myself. I love libraries and I wish more people loved libraries too. I’m going to give libraries the benefit of the doubt, and keep on supporting them and heralding their value until someone can’t convince me otherwise. I still have to wonder though.

On an only slightly related note, check out this Improv Everywhere prank where actors posing as angry writers protest the pirating of their books at a library. Funny stuff.