Skip to Content

Libraries and bestsellers

5 January 2004

A recent report in the Denver Post highlighted the increasing focus on supplying videos rather than books through the US public library system. Ann Cress, associate director of public services at Jefferson County, said: ‘The library is about people. We try to build the collection that our population wants.’

But no-one in the book business can fail to be concerned about a trend that shows 53% of Denver Public Library circulation now coming from videos and audio materials other than books, and only 20% coming from books for adults. Perhaps it’s encouraging that 47% of the acquisition budget is still spent on books for adults, but it does raise the general question of what public libraries are for. Do they still have an educational and literary mission to maintain and offer collections of books, rather than videos and CDs?

The British Library

Public libraries in many countries are in the doldrums, suffering from lack of funds to buy books and declining borrowing figures. Perhaps it’s not a fair comparison but the British Library has recently triumphantly justified its existence. It commissioned a study which justifies its government grant by quantifying the overall contribution it makes to the economy. This claims that the Library generates 4.4 times the value it receives in public funding, by adding £363 to the British economy each year.

The study used a new method known as ‘contingent valuation’, which has also been used to show that the National Library of New Zealand

A large collection, much of it digitised and therefore searchable, including some important sets of papers and images relating to NZ history.

came up with a ratio of economic benefit to public finding of 3.5 to 1 and the Danish National Theatre in Copenhagen achieved a ratio of 1 to 1. This may provide an interesting new way of looking at publicly funded organisations.

Bookscan bestsellers

National libraries have other, wider remits as repositories of information, but perhaps the positive view might be that people are buying books rather than borrowing them? This thought is not all that comforting when you look at poor book sales in many markets. Then there’s Bookscan’s list of the 2003 American non-fiction bestsellers. No less than six of the top ten are diet books, with the unsinkable Dr Atkins contributing four of these. There’s not much comfort for writers or publishers here.