GuestColumn: Libraries + E-books
Many who read books through libraries decide to give them as gifts or, when they can afford to, purchase a copy for their own collections. Many libraries offer a "buy it now" button on their catalog websites. For those titles that are by first-time authors or not destined to be bestsellers, libraries are often how those authors and titles are "discovered." Libraries have great opportunities to enhance discoverability with displays, author programs, and other means. Perhaps the most compelling advantage is that avid readers frequent libraries and bookstores on a very regular basis (often weekly, sometimes more) and always seem to be trolling for a new catch.
This may not sound like that much until we remember that there are 16,698 public library buildings (nearly as many as there are McDonald's), one located in or near virtually every community in the United States. (This number includes public libraries only. There are tens of thousands of school, academic and special libraries as well.) With the loss of bookstores, these are increasingly the only physical locations where readers can actually "see" titles. For e‑books, library website visitors will only see what the library can offer. Libraries develop ways of pushing those e‑book titles to potential customers, and librarians are known to be highly trusted, unbiased sources of information and recommendations.
What's the value of finding a solution from the libraries' point of view? Libraries are very responsive to local community interests. We know our customers, and not just from the aggregate data we collect. Librarians actually have very direct interactions with customers. We know them by name; we know what they like to read. Our "readers advisory" service is in great demand by those who are heavy library users as well as those who request occasional assistance. We build our inventory to meet that local demand. Then, we pay attention to what circulates and what does not. When we have robust book purchasing budgets (yes, there are many libraries that still do), we weed out some of those already-purchased books and replace them with new titles, always trying to anticipate our readers' interests.