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Should Libraries Only Be Available To Those Who Can’t Afford To Buy?

A photo of Cardiff library

Over a year ago, some months before the bullies fiasco, Nathan Bransford wrote a short post about libraries in which he noted his annoyance, as an author, when people whose income was high enough for them to afford books tell him they borrowed something from the library. His statement was obviously subjective, yet even if you’re not an author I think it’d be difficult to say he is wrong to feel that way. We say that libraries are for everyone, that libraries are for the public and it is a detriment when they are closed, but no one could fault Bransford where a source of his income arises from the sale of his books.

Forgetting for the moment the thought that libraries are for everyone, should libraries not be used by those who can afford to buy books?

Looking at it from an economical perspective, libraries buy books. When a person borrows a library book they are borrowing a purchased book, however that one-off purchase and public lending rights do not make up for the number of times the book may be borrowed (the linked article includes details about payments by UK libraries). The amount of money made by library purchases would never be anywhere near the amount that would be made if more people bought a copy themselves. By this reasoning, a person with money who wants to read the book is doing the literary world a disservice (except, of course, the library – more on that later).

It is somewhat cheeky, if we consider Bransford’s view, which for obvious and understandable reasons will at least somewhat match that of other authors, for someone who can buy a book to get it for free instead. That reader is not buying a book that another person could be making money from, money that will often be the writer’s primary or only source of income. Perhaps Rowling and Meyer do not ‘need’ the extra sale, but many authors do ‘need’ it, and this is easy to forget. An author could have a good few books out, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re making good money, and in addition, if books do not sell and they are traditionally published, it may be harder for the writer to sell future books to publishing houses in the first place.

Of course this begs the question what of reviewers? It begs what of libraries in general? What of book swaps and so forth? I won’t go into this long because it would take us away from the topic, but where reviewers and libraries are concerned, sometimes book swapping, too, there is a sense of paying it back. Reviewers get a free book in return for publicity (when they can, given how many books they are sent). Libraries hold events and they provide a place for members of the community to meet, use the internet, and so on. The value of libraries stretches beyond books. And lending a book to a friend can lead to the friend spreading the word themselves and buying their own copy. A friend who likes the book is quite likely to try the rest of the author’s output.

On the subject of free, few can buy every book they want to read. Perhaps there are some people out there able to walk about a bookshop as Michael Jackson did an antique shop, buying up every book they do not own, but the vast majority cannot. (And, really, of those that can buy hundreds, how many books would get read? That’s important, too.) We borrow from the library, from friends and family. We take advantage of Kindle deals and Kobo coupons. We like to try before we buy, especially if we’re not sure enough about an author to buy the book but sure enough to want to read it. And when you’re studying, those research books you’ll use for one course aren’t cheap. In these cases it makes sense that everyone will borrow at some point. Indeed in the case of research, you’d be considered a fool to purchase everything, no matter how much money you have.

Then there are second-hand bookshops, beloved by all, that until only recently escaped discussion (discussion focused on ebooks at that).

Borrowing from the library doesn’t cause any literal harm. The main issue that might occur, if a wealthy person borrows, would be when a book was being borrowed at the same time as a person who couldn’t afford to buy wished to read it. When I say this, I am not factoring in wait lists; it’s all well and good to wait. However if lots of wealthy people were borrowing the book one after another then I think we’d be almost forced to accept that there was an issue because we are rightly focused on those who have less being able to access books easily. It is one of the biggest reasons for keeping libraries open. Share and share alike, but at what cost? Of course this idea of one after the other would have to be extreme to matter, but as it is possible and as it would have an impact, it’s something to consider.

By their borrowing, wealthy readers help keep libraries open. Everyone who uses the library helps to keep it open and so by extension do those who could technically go without libraries. Where authors, publishers, and so forth, may be done a disservice of sorts, the library is aided. We could ask if everyone would consider wealthy borrowing to be a good reason to keep the library open. Should it factor in a decision? Does it even matter? But regardless, those who can afford to buy books count as much as those who can’t when it comes to the number of people using the library, and therefore without wealthy borrowers, library numbers would fall. And even if they did happen to make up the majority of users of any one library, would that really matter on the whole? Closing such a library would not help those who weren’t of that wealth unless the money went to them in a better way, and it would stop new potential readers of any background.

Libraries need to be available to everyone and anyone who needs them, regardless of how much they do or do not have. And every user is important as a reader, as a member, and yes, as a number.


Christine @Buckling Bookshelves

August 13, 2014, 2:36 am

I do understand the viewpoint of a struggling author, but this also feels a bit like a symptom of today’s “one use” society — the idea that things are “disposable” or only good for “one use.” I do buy a lot of books, but I also hate being wasteful — an inevitable side effect of physically acquiring every single book one ever reads whether or not you actually want to keep the book or add it to a collection. If there were some income threshold beyond which “wealthy” people could not use libraries, I think there would be a lot of waste. A book is a physical object that can be read and re-read and borrowed and lent — as it should be, in my opinion. While reading is an experience, it is not an experience like going to the movies or a concert where you buy a ticket in order to watch, but don’t have a physical object to keep when the evening is over — maybe some people think books should be like that, but I’m not one of them. Also, I don’t think there is anything to be gained by labeling libraries as only for “poor people” — I think that would add an unnecessary and detrimental stigma to the services & books libraries provide. If those who need libraries most are embarrassed to use them because they are only for the “less fortunate” we could easily see a drop in patronage by those who we’re supposedly trying to “help” by keeping the wealthy out. On top of all that, there is the fact that a big decrease in circulation or membership numbers would also decrease libraries’ ability and funding to acquire new materials. And if none of these arguments work, there is always the fact that we all pay the taxes that fund our libraries and enable them to buy books to lend out in the first place! People who can afford to buy books (and have a desire to do so) will still buy books. They may even borrow a book and then decide to buy a copy to keep. But not allowing them to use libraries won’t do anyone any good, in my opinion.

Christine @Buckling Bookshelves

August 13, 2014, 2:47 am

One final thought: You also make a good point about reviewers/bloggers getting free copies in the hopes of said reviewer providing publicity/coverage of the title. I’m not *wealthy*, but I can afford to buy books and I have definitely gotten in over my head in terms of review copies. I feel guilty knowing that I could be buying those books when they come out (or borrowing them from the library!) So I’m taking a step back from them, but I will never feel guilty for using my library!

Gosh, I didn’t realize my comments were so long — sorry!


August 13, 2014, 6:58 am

And who would see if you are poor enough? So not a cool idea


August 13, 2014, 10:52 am

I think it is a problematic idea, I think limiting a free facility would lead to less people utilising their local libraries. What needs to happen are incentives to get more people going, which would lead to more money being invested into them and move books given. It would be good if publication houses could give a free copy or a two to libraries – I know I would go without a review copy of a book for the sake of a library. People should also be able to donate their books to libraries (although, does that already happen?). I don’t think segregation is a good option, inclusion is.


August 13, 2014, 1:55 pm

I’ve always used libraries to sample books and see what I want to own. I get the sense that people use bookstores like that now, and, as Christine observes, think of books as disposable.
An author who is more interested in getting my money than in getting his story out there is not an author I want to read.

Margaret @ BooksPlease

August 13, 2014, 5:25 pm

No – libraries are for everyone!

Tracy Terry

August 14, 2014, 1:25 pm

Hmm, thought provoking. In answer to your question I strongly believe they all for all no matter what their financial circumstances.



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