What are Libraries For?

In the Library with the Lead Pipe welcomes guest author Hugh McGuire, the founder of LibriVox.org, the world’s most prolific publisher of audiobooks (all read by volunteers); Iambik Audio, a commercial audiobook publisher built on a model similar to LibriVox; and PressBooks, a simple digital book-production tool. Hugh served on the Board (2002-2010) of the Atwater Library, a small community library, and the last remaining Mechanics Institute in Canada.

The Kindle Gazer, after Lilla Cabot Perry by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com / CC-BY

The Kindle Gazer, after Lilla Cabot Perry by Flickr user Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com (CC-BY 2.0)


Ebooks will become the dominant form of casual reading for adults at some point in the future ((Ebook sales accounted for 1-2% for trade publishers in the USA in 2008. By 2010 that number was somewhere around 10%, and is expected to be 15-20% by the end of 2011. There is no reason to expect that this trend won’t continue, and major publishing houses expect 50% of their business to be digital by 2015. This doesn’t mean that print is going away, but it does mean that any person, business, or institution involved in books must prepare for a time, coming soon, when the majority of book reading is done on digital devices.)). When this happens, community and public libraries will face a major existential crisis, because a fundamental (perhaps the fundamental) function of community libraries—lending print books—will no longer be a fundamental demand from the community. Libraries that do not adjust will find their services increasingly irrelevant to the populations they serve.

If ebooks will become dominant, and if community libraries have, to date, structured their existence around a dying function (lending print books), then how will libraries remain relevant in the future?

To find an answer to this conundrum, it’s important to try to understand the reason for a library’s existence, rather than focus on the things a library does.

How you do something does not define why you exist

I’d like to propose a loose definition of what libraries are for, which comes out of something of a trope: that the central problem for big institutions when the environment around them is changing (as it is for libraries with the arrival of ebooks) is that they falsely assume that how they do things defines why they exist. In fact, the inverse relationship should dominate what they do: why they exist should define how they do things. Put another way, institutions must understand what they are for in order to properly understand how they should be, especially when the foundations upon which they were built are changing. (With the caveat that knowing what one ought to do is very different from being able to make the changes required).

This is the challenge now for any institution that deals in information: book stores, music labels, the movie business, public broadcasters, schools and universities, and certainly libraries. That is, they have defined their existence by various functions they perform within a given information ecosystem, one that is changing completely as digital comes to dominate all media forms. All these institutions—libraries included—grew up in an ecosystem where information was scarce, and information distribution was the base function of what they did. How they did things was a function of the need that they answered. But with digital, the ecosystem is changing, has changed, will change completely in the coming decades.

Information is abundant; distribution is (in theory) free

Information is now abundant and distribution is essentially (in theory anyway) free. Institutions are having a hard time adapting, and at least part of the difficulty is shifting a mindset from function to purpose: shifting the thinking from how we do things defining our beings now, to why we do things defining how we’ll do things in the future.

So: music labels thought they sold CDs to people; newspapers think they get writers to make news articles and get people to read them; libraries think they give people access to books and computers. But they are all wrong, to a lesser or greater extent.

These kinds of definitions get you tied up in functional activities, and they don’t really get to the core of what’s important, what the real thing is that an institution does, the real value it provides to the universe.

What are libraries for?

As a starting point, here is my proposal for what a community library is for:

  1. to disseminate books and information for free or close to free
  2. to archive information
  3. to provide a community space for people to interact around information
  4. perhaps: to give people the tools necessary to manage information in a sensible way.

With that out of the way, here are some factors that will fundamentally change what libraries do in the future.

The Price of Ebooks Will Tend Towards Zero

Publishers of all stripes—from the New York Times to HarperCollins to SonyMusic—will continue to spend time and energy in the coming decade fighting people’s reluctance to pay for digital content at the prices they used to pay for analog media. But those efforts will fail, and ebook prices will drop, sooner or later, because keeping the prices up is fighting against two fundamental forces: supply and demand, and the elimination of the expenses traditionally associated with publishing and distribution.

Fundamental Force #1: Supply and Demand

The supply of books is increasing exponentially. In 2002 there were on the order of 275,000 books published by traditional publishers in the USA. By 2009, that number—if you include micro- and self-published work—rose to close to 1 million books. Note that this was before the ebook revolution really got going, and publishing a “book” became an almost trivial matter. While many will point out that the quality of self-published books won’t compete with the quality of published works, that distinction is going away. We have major writers choosing to self-publish for economic reasons (Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath), and million-selling self-publishers signing with major publishing houses (Amanda Hocking). The distinction between self and published will fade, and the number of books out there is just going to continue to increase.

Demand on the other hand—defined by the number of hours per day humans can read books—is going to stay roughly constant. And the demand for books is facing an ever-growing challenge, the challenge of other things we can do with our time: movies, news article, blog posts, video games, Youtube videos, Angry Birds, Facebook—and any number of other instantly-available sources of information or entertainment—all compete with books for our time.

Supply of information is going up; demand is staying roughly constant.

The economic equation is clear: the value of any random piece of entertainment (whether that’s a book or an mp3 track) will tend to zero ((Note, however, that the value of sorting, aggregating, and presenting the right information, is going up. So Google (sorting), Amazon (aggregating), and Apple (presenting) information are among the most highly valued companies in the world, while the producers of information—say, The New York Times and Random House—will continue to struggle.)).

We live in a world where the supply of books is growing exponentially, and the demand for books is relatively static, and certainly under fire. The result must be a decline in price.

Fundamental Force #2: The Cost of Publishing & Global Distribution Has Gone to Zero

An ebook is infinitely copyable and infinitely distributable at (almost) zero cost. Of course, you have to pay the writer and editor and all that, but getting text from a writer’s keyboard to the eyes of a reader might as well be free (to test this theory: find a long text file on your computer and email it to a friend).

Media businesses have spent the last 15 years fighting against supply and demand, and zero-cost distribution, using Digital Rights Management (DRM), paywalls, and lawsuits. There is no indication that this has worked, the music business has abandoned DRM, and Netflix now gives consumers unlimited movie downloads for $7.95 per month, a price that would have been laughed at just a few years ago.

The price problem will be even worse in the book publishing business, because books are much easier to copy and ship around the Internet than any other media; they are just text files, occasionally with images. Whatever barriers to distribution official market channels put up (high prices, DRM) will be easily overcome by unofficial/black market channels.

Libraries have long served as a place where cost-conscious readers could find books at near-zero prices (paid for by taxes or relatively low membership fees). But what happens when all these ebooks are available at prices approaching free—legally or otherwise—on the Internet?

While a certain portion of the population might choose the library out of ethical consideration, or fondness for the past, the laws of economics and physics will prevail in the long-run: people will get their ebooks where friction is least, and if that means free books on the Internet, that’s where they will go. Eventually price pressure will affect ebooks the way it has affected music and movies. Piracy and unauthorized sharing of ebooks will grow as a black market; eventually publishers will recognize that they cannot compete against a black market that is so much better at matching supply and demand, and they will begin to provide ebooks at close-to-free prices. This is what’s happened in music (Spotify, Rdio, MOG, Grooveshark, Last.fm, Pandora), and movies (Netflix, Amazon On-Demand Movies).

It will happen in ebooks.

When this happens, libraries won’t be competing against illegal free content available through file sharing, but rather with nominally-priced subscription ebook services that provide unlimited access to ebooks to consumers (or something similar).

So what happens to a library when all ebooks in the world are accessible to readers at a cost that approaches a couple of cups of coffee a month, or for more enterprising readers, nothing at all?

What is the purpose of a library if one of its defining market advantages—its low price—no longer distinguishes a library from the commercial competition?

All Books Will Live on the Web

Ebooks, as we now know them, are a transitional format. They won’t go away, but in a few years (2? 5? 20?) all books will live on the web, as well as in various other incarnations, such as printed books, ePub, Kindle’s AZW, and whatever else we might do with them.

But books will live on the web because there is more value for a reader if a book is on the web, and in print, and in ebook format, than if a book is only ebook and print. A book on the web can be searched, referenced, shared, copied, pasted, and who knows what else, more easily than if it is only in ebook format or print. The market economy is good at rewarding those who find ways to deliver more value to consumers, so there will be immense commercial incentive for new publishers to emerge, publishers that will put books on the web; old publishers will follow or perish, in the long run.

One characteristic of the library is that it has always been the place that had the books we wanted to read. So what happens when every book in the universe is not just available to be bought, but available to be read and interacted with on the web, immediately from any person’s computing device?

If the archiving of books happens instantly on the web, and if the dissemination of books happens at nearing zero cost on the web, what is a library for?

The Response to Date: Fake Friction

The tendency in libraries—as with all existing media institutions in the digital age—is to try to introduce artificial constraints that make digital information difficult in some of the ways non-digital information is. In the case of commercial publishers, this is achieved through Digital Rights Management—which restricts readers’ ability to copy ebooks and move them from device to device. Further, unique valuable characteristics of a digital book—e.g., easy copy/pasting—are generally disabled.

In the case of libraries, the question has been framed roughly as:

How do we replicate a financial model where we bought a copy of a print book and were able to lend it out only to one person at a time?

In the physical world, library lending has two main constraints:

  • Physical Constraint #1: only one person can have a particular copy of a book out at any given time.
  • Physical Constraint #2: a patron can have a copy of a printed book only for a defined period of time.

In the digital world, both of these constraints are artificial: ebooks are infinitely copyable at zero cost, so:

  • an infinite number of patrons could theoretically “check out” an ebook at any given time
  • there is no need to “return” an ebook; since it is infinitely copyable, the library always has other copies for other patrons.

Of course, the financial arrangement between libraries and publishers, developed in the print environment, and replicated for now in digital, introduces fake frictions of various kinds:

  • (Fake) Digital Constraint #1: only one patron can take out an ebook at any given time
  • (Fake) Digital Constraint #2: patrons must “return” those ebooks when they are finished with them.

This replicates a print model, and allows libraries and publishers to continue their relationship more or less as it developed prior to digital.

But this just won’t last, because it means that libraries will become uncompetitive—on price and convenience—with other ways of getting ebooks. Libraries will become more and more irrelevant to readers.

Some Solutions?

Chaotic change is coming for all who deal with books, libraries included. And the solutions to this uncertain future is to clearly understand what a library is for, and to make sure that resources are allocated to meet these needs as the world changes.

Above, I proposed a definition of what libraries are for:

  1. to disseminate books and information for free or close to free
  2. to archive information
  3. to provide a community space for people to interact around information
  4. perhaps: to give people the tools necessary to manage information in a sensible way.

Priorities must shift.

1. Disseminating Books and Information for Free

I would argue that #1 will soon no longer be a unique property of libraries, and that easily accessible ebooks at close to zero cost will be available to everyone, either legally or otherwise. Unfortunately, community libraries have structured themselves to date to fulfill this function, probably above all others. I don’t think disseminating free books will be a sustainable core function for libraries.

2. Archiving

The Internet will serve the purpose of the great archive of all (new) books, and a good portion of old ones as well (see Google Books and the Internet Archive). At the same time, community libraries may well serve an important role in collecting, archiving, and organizing information important to a local population, whether print or digital. That all the information is available on the Internet does not mean that it is well organized, especially for local interests. The “Internet” cannot and will not archive specifically for specific populations, so there is an important role here for libraries.

3. Community Space

Already an important function of a library, providing community space and context for interaction around information should continue to be a focus, and is something that the shift to digital cannot change. Indeed, as we continue to suffer from information overload from all sides, providing social context, and physical interaction in a public space, will surely grow in importance.

4. Managing Information

That every bit of information might exist on the Internet does not make it any easier for most people to navigate. Indeed the role of libraries as curators, editors, and selectors will just grow in importance as the sea of bits and bytes continues to rise around us.


A world of ubiquitous free or near-free ebooks is coming, in 5 or 10 or 20 years. And when that happens, a library that defines itself as “a place where you can get free or near-free books” will no longer be an institution providing a service deemed important enough to be maintained by its community. But libraries have never been solely about free books. They are about something deeper, about information, about access to knowledge, about providing a public space where citizens can interact with each other, all within the context of an exchange of knowledge. Libraries are at the core of our understanding of civilization, and if we are to keep them healthy, we’ll have to make sure that they continue to answer deep needs in our society, rather than provide particular services because they’ve always done so.

Thanks to Eli Neiburger and Alex Wright for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article, and to Brett Bonfield for helping to prepare it for publication.

48 Responses

  1. Pingback : What are Libraries For? … In the Library with the Lead Pipe : Hugh McGuire

  2. suzi w.

    As a Children’s Librarian for almost ten years, I agree wholeheartedly with one of your points: that libraries are for: “provid[ing] a community space for people to interact around information.”

    In fact, most public librarians reading this article would agree with that statement.

    In my line of work, for instance, children come to the library for story times with or with out their parents. The parents that come learn how to read with their children, and enjoy interacting with other parents and caregivers. As a public library, our main focus in the Children’s department during the school year is to the three and under crowd, the “pre-readers.” During the summer, our main focus are the school age readers, as we and libraries across the U.S. host “Summer Reading Programs” which help combat the real risk of summer learning loss.

    I was never under the impression that the only reason a library existed was to offer free reading to the masses, and I think my colleagues agree with me. This might be why you have unwittingly angered some of us. You have wrapped up old information and called it new and told us that we did not know our Raison d’être.

    Best of luck.

    Suzi W.

    1. Hi Suzi, Well the response has been various:

      1. you are wrong! ebooks won’t replace books!
      1.a you are wrong! ebooks won’t be free or near-free!
      2. you are right! huzzah for your article!
      3. you are insulting! we already do all this!

      a) we don’t need to change!
      b) yes, we need to change!
      c) we already have changed!

      I suspect this reflects a wide difference in how different libraries/librarians approach their tasks.

      But as I said above in the comment thread: my experience is that the largest part of library budget goes to books: purchasing, cataloging, circulating, storing, displaying.

      But what happens if print books really go away (and ebooks become free or close to free?) What does a library do? Something drastic, surely.

      It’s up to librarians to figure out what. So … what is the answer? Or rather, what is the process to get to the answer?

  3. tom hobbs

    Libraries came into existence centuaries ago to facilitate the dissemination to more people, by use of new technologies, at a lower cost.
    Over the last several entuaries technologies changed slowly. Now they do not. With the merging of tv and computer technologies 2 years ago the rate of change of techologies will increase.
    Libraries can best survive by continually adopting new (and expensive) technologies for their users.
    They increase their use by focussing on technologies that support their use as a community meeting place for the exchange of new ideas and solving community problems.
    Their utility to loan books and read magazines will pass in the near future.
    They need to be at the leading edge of new technology use until the average person can afford it.

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