Monday, April 11, 2011

The Thing About Libraries

Inspired by Courtney Milan's wonderful post about libraries, and in celebration of the government continuing to function (keeping the libraries in DC open)  I thought I'd chip in with my own.  Growing up, my mother was a big fan of free and cheap things that could be done to entertain small children.  So, we went to most of the museums in the Smithsonian, stared at stained glass and gargoyles in the National Cathedral, played at local parks and, of course, went to the library.  Since we were near the DC/MD border we frequented both the Tenleytown branch of the DC system (which has now been redone into an architectural wonder) and the Little Falls and Bethesda branches of the Montgomery County libraries.  We also bought books, particularly at the now long gone Cheshire Cat bookstore (which also hosted a bunch of free events with authors). 
So, at a point in my life where I didn't even get an allowance to spend, I was introduced to reading with great assistance from the libraries.  I got to pick out my own things - although my mother certainly looked at them, I don't recall her ever telling me no, other than limiting the number I could take home.  The biggest issue we ran into was that, particularly when I was reading shorter kids books, I finished them all really quickly thus bugging my mother for a return trip sooner than she had planned. 
As I started getting an allowance larger than a dollar, and saving up for things I wanted, the library was still there.  Sure I bought books, but I also wanted to buy candy and lip gloss and so the library helped me spread out that allowance.  Later I had summer jobs (where I kept half my pay and saved the other half for college and such) but since they were summer jobs making minimum wage (or sometimes less) the library was a tremendous resource in filling my reading habit, especially when we would take those family vacations to somewhere with no TV so we could get away from it all.  (Yeah, these were a huge hit to a teen, oh, let's go look at swampland.*)  Books were portable and while they took up some space in my bag, it allowed me to have something to do in those down times. 
In college, I had tons of assigned reading, but would set aside times to read fun stuff that hadn't been assigned.  I had the local library there and the local bookstore that had a decent sales wall, but again, my budget was limited, so I borrowed from the library at least as many as I bought.  One book I read entirely at lunch each day for about a month.  (One of my college roommates enjoyed torturing me by discovering my book and telling me she had read the last chapter. Yes, I actually consider that torture.)
Out of college I had a job.  I had several jobs.  The first few, I was paid irregularly (the joy of small businesses and such.)  So, the buying and borrowing continued.  Eventually I got a job that paid me on a regular schedule.  (It had benefits too.) And slowly reached a point where I could buy books almost exclusively.  Some of them I bought used, but the library card was getting less use. 
But the point, as Ms. Milan, so graciously made in her post, is that the library got me through those times, so that as a decently paid adult, I became a book buyer.  A really big book buyer. 
I have been told that Disney's goal is to get you to visit at least four times - they figure the first two are when other adults take you, the third with kids, and the fourth, well that's the one where you spend the big bucks. So, the idea is that they have to make every one of those first three visits so amazing that you make that fourth visit (and you know hopefully that one to and so on).  And libraries help serve that purpose for readers.  Libraries allow people to become and maintain this reader thingy. Otherwise, particularly in this day and age, you could go play minesweeper or Angry Birds for a similarly cheap investment.  You could watch more TV.  There are all sorts of low budget activities you could fill your time with instead of reading books. 
So, the point (and I do have one) is that libraries are not stealing book sales.  Libraries are establishing readers.  And libraries offering ebooks isn't killing sales, it is, again, establishing and maintaining readers.  Readers aren't saying, "Gee, I could buy this book or just borrow it free on my couch."  They are saying, "I could buy ten books, or I can fill up the gas tank.   Hmmm, maybe I won't buy books this week."   Sure, that's not everyone's experience, but the assumption that library borrowers are just borrowing when they could buy, is well, naive. 

*Yes, we went on "good" vacations too.