We are getting all too used to hearing dire news about libraries, especially perhaps from the UK. Public funding of libraries, which used to be seen as a necessary public duty, now falls victim to austerity measures here there and everywhere. Odd to look back on the 20th century as a beacon of liberalism, but as more and more clouds gather, this may turn out to be a necessary mental adjustment despite all those wars hot and cold. I suspect that part of the “justification” for under-funding library service is provided by an easy, unexamined assumption that in a world of e-books, libraries just aren’t as necessary as they once were. No doubt it’s too late now for legislators to reverse course in recognition of the slow-down in e-book adoption.
Librarians, you’ll be glad to know, are not taking this development lying down. One response seems to be to set off down the road of lending more kinds of stuff — not just boring old books, but a beach chair on which to sit while you read that book. The Wall Street Journal of 18 March describes this phenomenon in an article entitled Need Pruning Shears or a Ukulele?.
I guess this is OK, though is converting your public library into a free Rent-a-Center likely to endear you to public officials looking for yet more reasons to cut budgets without (heaven forfend) increasing local taxes? Manhattan may be a particularly benighted region, but I must say I’ve not noticed such non-book items on offer on recent visits to our library. We still conform more to the picture offered by Slate in April 2014 in The Future of the Library: “walk into a typical American public library and you’ll probably identify about three current core services: storing an underused circulating collection of paper books, ensuring community-wide access to Facebook on desktop computers, and sheltering homeless people.” But maybe beach chairs and gardening tools are not in high demand in our borough.
The idea from Southold of installing a little library branch inside a laundromat seems to have potential. Of course little sub-branches here and there just lead to the problem of limited choice. If you find a book you want to read while your clothes rotate in the dryer, great, if not, not. Maybe the library’s e-book collection provides the answer to this restriction.
Another — glaringly obvious — way to go is to publish some books yourself and sell them in the gift shop which is a necessary feature of any self-respecting library these days. We all know that publishing is a phenomenally profitable enterprise! So let’s get a piece of the pie. Library gift shops already sell pencils and Moleskines, and books they have to buy from publishers, so why not cut out that middleman and make your own books? Now that you can manage to make money on ludicrously low print runs, there would appear to be minimal risk in banging out a classic or two, or even having your librarians write a book tailored to their local juvenile audience. But take care: don’t let your enthusiasm run away with you, and certainly don’t increase your print run in order to be able to publish at an attractive retail price.
Here are stories of three libraries embarking on their own publishing programs. New York Public Library as recounted by The Guardian and by Book Business; the British Library at Publishing Perspectives; and from the same source Williamson County Public Library. The catalog of the incunabula exhibition at the Cambridge University Library was published by the Library itself.
See also Libraries as publishers from 5 December 2014.