Tracy Nectoux on Libraries versus Bookstores
Tracy Nectoux, a library student at UIUC, is taking a class whose students were assigned to visit a bookstore and compare the atmosphere to a library’s atmosphere. This is what she wrote:
The library’s purpose is different from that of bookstores
- And it always has been. Public libraries are set up so that anyone who wants to can give himself or herself a free university education. This has been the case since Boston Public Library opened its doors in 1848. Yes, the library offers more than this, and its purpose is not solely to educate. I would argue, however, that this is its most important purpose, and this opportunity is available to every citizen who wants it.
- The purpose of bookstores is to make profit by selling books, CDs, DVDs, coffee, etc. True, bookstores sell some educational books along with escapist fare and entertainment, but their wares are available only to those who can afford to pay for them.
Libraries are public institutions; bookstores are private institutions
This is self-explanatory. Implicit in the question of why libraries can’t be more like bookstores is the attitude that bookstores make money while libraries cost money. I’ve heard quite a bit of fearful statements that the public is at best, apathetic toward libraries and at worst, hostile toward us. I can’t say I have all the answers to address this issue, but I think that changing our goals, purposes, and mission (or altering it beyond recognition), is certainly not the answer.
The mission of libraries is different from that of bookstores
Foremost in the American Library Association’s mission, priority areas, and goals are intellectual freedom, access to all, and public awareness. The ALA is the only major public organization that is at the forefront of fighting the Patriot Act. The ALA has continuously and inexhaustibly fought book banning and censorship. And the ALA often steps outside library issues, joining with and supporting other organizations regarding social justice and responsibility:
Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) is a unit within the American Library Association. It works to make ALA more democratic and to establish progressive priorities not only for the Association, but also for the entire profession. Concern for human and economic rights was an important element in the founding of SRRT and remains an urgent concern today. SRRT believes that libraries and librarians must recognize and help solve social problems and inequities in order to carry out their mandate to work for the common good and bolster democracy.
None of the above could be said to be a goal of bookstores, either independent or chain. They are businesses whose bottom line is profit. First Amendment freedoms, civil rights issues, equal access to all, etc. are just not going to be at the top of their yearly accounting financial quotas. Indeed, I would guess that Borders Books has spent more money fighting unions than it has fighting for equal access. I doubt most bookstores have a Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force.
Libraries spend money and time on services that bookstores don’t offer
- Libraries are at the cutting edge of preservation, something with which bookstores do not have to concern themselves. What doesn’t sell, doesn’t sell; so long, farewell. Contrarily, libraries (along with museums) spend countless hours on preservation. A quick perusal of the U of I OPAC shows that we have six copies of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry on our own shelves and hundreds more available through I-Share. These range from older editions going back to 1910, to newer editions from the last decade, to scholarly interpretation, to even online sources. Urbana Free Library has A Defence of Poetry as an electronic resource, and thirty-seven other works by Shelley, including anthologies that contain the above title. What were turn-of-the-century scholars saying about Shelley’s literary criticism? We know what they were saying because our libraries preserve this information. Pages For All Ages, however, does not contain even one edition of this important work of Romantic criticism.
- Consider Stephen King’s Danse Macabre (a New York Times bestseller and winner of both the Hugo and Locus awards). In this book?¢‚Ç¨‚Äùa modern classic of genre reflection and history?¢‚Ç¨‚ÄùKing includes an appendix containing a list of books that have been influential to him as a scholar and author. Many of the books in King’s appendix are out of print. Where can a King fan go to find them? Moreover, the 1982 edition of Danse Macabre is also out of print. Where can a King fan go to find the award-winning edition? Of course, today, some (but not all) of these books can probably be found online through used bookstores, but even so, what is a lower-class or thrifty reader to do if he/she wants to read the 1982 edition of Danse Macabre, or the books from Stephen King’s list? (And we can be certain that his fans will want to read them.) Where can we find these classics selected by arguably the most influential horror writer of all time? Who would have all of them available (either on the shelves or through IL) free of charge? And who wouldn’t? I’ll bet I don’t have to answer this.
- The University of Illinois Rare Book Library has “a significant portion of the Bible printed by Johannes Gutenberg.” We also have an original Audubon. I would venture to guess that if, say, Barnes and Noble had anything close to this, they would limit their latte service too. Why is our lighting dimmer than bookstores? Why are we selective about where we allow food and drink? Because our holdings are more valuable and vulnerable than those in bookstores.
- It is a little-known fact (outside of library school) that libraries are also at the cutting edge of digital technology and preservation. We should remember this and flaunt it. We provide online access to journals, periodicals, indexes, and abstracts. Public access to this scholarship is not a concern for bookstores, and even if it was, they’d charge for it.
Services that bookstores provide (and libraries do too)
- Reading Groups? We have them.
- Employee Favorite Picks? We got it.
- Displays? Yes.
- Booklists? Of course.
- Story time? We have it.
- Copy machines? Check.
- Movies and music? Check and Check.
- Oprah’s latest diet book? We have it, and we also have a Gutenberg!!
- Space for meetings and studying? We have it.
We also have free tax forms, phone books, city, state, and national maps, free information on homeschooling and special education. We have knowledgeable, educated staff and exceptional Readers Advisory guides. We offer free Internet access. We have toys that children can play with, and even borrow. A warm couch in the winter for the homeless? We damn sure have that too. Bookstores have none of these.
Yes, our OPACs have a learning curve. So do video games, computers, Blackberries, cell phones, and iPods. If 12-year-olds can learn how to download music on their mp3s, it shouldn’t take a grown woman an hour to find a travel book in a library (Rippel 150). We have a specialized reference desk, as well as tours and orientations, to help patrons learn. I agree that our catalogs should not be unnecessarily difficult, but whatever happened to expecting our patrons to read the instruction on the help page?
These are just a few arguments why libraries should not encourage statements that they should be more like bookstores. Our purpose is unique and honorable, and this directly effects the unique and honorable service we provide. I find that in most conversations of this kind we end up defending ourselves against criticisms that are obtuse because they are basically asking us to move away from our original purpose: education, social activism, enlightenment, and finally, entertainment. Librarians’ response to the question of why we aren’t more like bookstores should be scornful silence, or maybe derisive laughter. At most, we should just say that the question compares apples to oranges. Both are lovely and tasty, but the comparison should end there.