Last chance for public libraries*

*Well, not public libraries themselves. I believe they have a bright future and that there will be more public libraries in, say, 2020 in the U.S. than there are now, or at least no more than 2% fewer. That deliberately provocative headline is, well, deliberately provocative.

Last chance for my books attempting to help public libraries help themselves

That’s what I mean…but that’s on the long side for a post title.

The short form

Barring at least some sales between now and April 2, 2014, the following books and ebooks will go out of print:

The longer form

I prepared Give Us a Dollar… in the belief that it might be helpful to some of America’s public libraries. I knew I wouldn’t make a ton of money from it, but thought I might at least make something close to, say, San Francisco minimum wage (call it $10 an hour). I also thought the lessons learned from doing that version would help in doing a better version when 2011 data came out.

The book certainly didn’t sell enough copies to return minimum wage; I’ve probably made around $700 so far, and I guarantee it took a lot more than 70 hours to prepare the research and write the book. Sales have yet to reach three digits…and there haven’t been any sales (at least of the Lulu version) in the last seven months or so. (The last recorded Lulu sale was in July 2013.)

I prepared the Compleat and Incompleat versions to remedy a major problem with the book: all tables, virtually no commentary and no graphs. I priced them as low as possible. Total revenue to date from those versions can be summed up easily: $0.

I also prepared $4 to $1…, which I believe to be a much improved approach. I only did libraries by size initially because it kept the size (and therefore price) down…and because it didn’t make sense to do Libraries by State unless at least a few dozen and preferably a few hundred libraries, consultants and others wanted the book enough to pay a whole $9.99 to $19.96 for it.

Again, I did this because I believed that my analysis could be of value to public libraries (and their Friends groups) and that at least some significant fraction of public libraries would find the work worthwhile.

I was (apparently) wrong.

Three copies of $4 to $1 were purchased in August 2013.

One copy was purchased in October 2013.

And that’s it.

Four copies over seven months sends me a very strong message: Public libraries really don’t give a hoot about the work I was doing; essentially none of them even find it worth risking $10.

I was apparently wrong to believe this work had any value. That’s OK; I’ve been wrong before.

(I still believe Your Library Is... is a wonderful little book, a bargain at $16.99 paperback or $8.99 ebook, but it’s selling like…well, it’s sold 11 copies, one as recently as January, so I’m leaving it alone for now. I found it inspiring to prepare. I think you’d find it inspiring to thumb through and read little by little. Although I could be wrong there as well.)

It’s too bad in a way, but I’m willing to assume it’s entirely my fault: That I simply had and have no idea what public libraries would actually want enough to pay anything for, and that what little feedback I got from the first year’s work wasn’t enough to make it worthwhile.

What I’m not willing to do: Leave my bookstore cluttered with items that are apparently unwanted.

The lesson I take from this is that, although I love public libraries, I apparently have little or nothing to offer them. I would note that I’d been approached about the possibility of doing custom data analysis for some public libraries at some point in the future, at a reasonable rate, and had in fact offered to do so at a rate far below what any sensible consultant would charge. That approach has, so far, not led to any such work, but it’s only been 1.5 years.

On the other hand, if these books are of no value to public libraries, it’s hard for me to justify offering cut-rate services to those same public libraries. So, at about the same time the books disappear from my bookstore, the offer to do such analysis at a bargain rate will also disappear. I have no reason to believe this will pose a problem for anybody.

No, I haven’t turned against public libraries. I regard America’s public library non-system as vital to the nation and its communities, I use and love my local public library, I want to see public libraries get even better (in an evolutionary rather than disruptive way–I’m mostly a print book borrower), and I may even write about them in the future. Just not on spec in the hope that they’ll pay even the most modest sums for the results. I’m a slow learner, but I’m not incapable of realizing my errors.

3 Responses to “Last chance for public libraries*”

  1. Ian Anstice says:

    Hi there.

    We’re getting very interested in this subject in the UK, not least because libraries funding in under such heavy pressure here. Arts Council England are undertaking a major project on working our the value of public libraries. I’ve been collecting a whole pile of links and data myself at

    I’m not sure how it is in the US but public librarians in the UK are often Arts based and, until the last two or three years, felt slightly too safe to worry about proving their value. That has died now as the profession is fighting for its life. Ian.

  2. Walt Crawford says:

    I’m acutely aware that UK public libraries are in a lot more trouble than US libraries are, at least where actual closure is concerned (I’ve dealt with closure elsewhere: there have been almost no system closures in the U.S. in the last decade). Naively, I think there may be a link between the first and the second paragraph–specifically:

    “public librarians in the UK are often Arts based and, until the last two or three years, felt slightly too safe to worry about proving their value.”‘

    Almost all public libraries in the U.S. are local, with most funding coming from the city (and in some cases the state). I’d guess that very few public librarians in the U.S. have felt no need to worry about demonstrating their value; it’s vital in terms of gaining additional funding or at least retaining funding. There’s a lot to be said for being in close touch with your patrons and local supporters (who may not all be patrons), who are also in large measure responsible for your funding and survival.

    Unfortunately, doomcryers in the U.S., usually without looking at the reality, have used legitimate UK fears of large numbers of closing libraries to suggest that U.S. public libraries are shutting down left & right. This just isn’t true, and I examined the reality closely in April & May 2012 in Cites & Insights, and

    Hmm. I should probably update that analysis one of these months…if I wasn’t feeling a little burned out about trying to help U.S. public libraries be more successful.

  3. Walt Crawford says:

    Also probably worth noting: U.S. public libraries have had increasing usage over almost every one of the last ten or more years: they have a strong story to tell. My understanding is that UK’s public libraries haven’t done as well in terms of circulation and other direct measures. (Can’t even reach CILIP to see whether it says something about that: site doesn’t respond.)