An Open Letter to My Public Library

Dear Librarians,

I’d like to thank you for the work you’ve done putting the library catalog online. The ability to reserve books online (and then renew them online when I don’t finish them on time) has been invaluable. It has dramatically increased my use of the library. Now when I need a book I routinely check the library first rather than ordering it from Amazon. It’s cheaper, the book gets to me faster; and when I’m done, the book no longer takes up space in my apartment. Excellent! Kudos all around.

And now you have eBooks so I don’t even have to go to the library to pick up my reservations! Regrettably the selection of eBooks is somewhat thinner and more oversubscribed; and yes, I know this is partially the publishers’ fault. Still, for the books that are available, it’s wonderful knowing that even the thickest physics text or mathematical tome isn’t going to weigh more than a small eReader or tablet. It makes reviewing calculus on the subway so much more practical.

I’d like to make a friendly suggestion for ramping this up a notch, making the library even more useful, expanding the collection, and increasing monetary donations to the library at the same time. Your circulating collection is large, probably one of the largest in the country, and certainly the largest one I’ve ever had the pleasure to use. Probably 90% of the time the book I’m looking for is available at one of your branches, and you helpfully bring it from wherever it is to my local library where I can pick it up off the reserve shelf. But there’s still that 10% of the time when you happen not to have the book I’m looking for. (And for eBooks that’s more like 90% of the time.) Sometimes that’s because it’s a relatively obscure technical book; but sometimes it just looks like a fluke. For instance, it’s the second book in a trilogy for which you have the first and the third, but somehow missed the middle (or it went missing). Or it’s a novel by an author, most of whose works you already have. It’s something that clearly fits in your collection but just doesn’t happen to be there yet. So off I surf to Amazon where I buy a book I only really want to read once, and that then is going to sit on my shelf untouched for years.

Here’s my idea: I’d rather buy the book for the library and than buy it for myself.

What does this entail? Simple: an online form on your web site where I can request a book that’s not currently in your collection, and where I can simultaneously make a donation with my credit card earmarked for the purchase of that book. You’d receive the information, verify that the book is reasonably suitable for the collection, charge my credit card, and then make the purchase. When the book arrives, you’d add the usual bar codes and magnetic strips and insert it into the catalog. Then you’d put it on the reserve shelf for me, and send me the usual e-mail letting me know it’s arrived. I’d have the customary 10 days to go pick it up and check it out. Of course I’d have to return it in the usual time frame just like any other library book (maybe renewing it once or twice if nobody else had placed a hold on it). At this point you’d put it on the shelves for everybody to browse and read. For eBooks this could be even faster. There’s no technical reason I couldn’t buy the book for the library and be reading it in the time it takes to download.

I think this is a win-win for all concerned. The library gets more books (and more donations); and patrons get to read books without perpetually storing them in their apartments. (I’m sure you know how big a concern that is for New Yorkers.) If you asked for the retail cover price of the book in advance, you’d probably even make a little profit on the deal to cover overhead and other activities. Since I’d get a tax deduction, I could afford to pay a little more than the typical Amazon discount price. And as an added bonus, some of your patrons (me included) have employers who match charitable donations 1:1, so a $40 book purchase would garner you an extra $40 in unrestricted funds to be used for staff salary, computers, building maintenance, or other unsexy but necessary expenses.

What do you think? Sounds like a plan?


The New York Public Library is heart-breakingly close to implementing this for eBooks. Through the NYPL web site I can ask them to buy an eBook they don’t already have, or I can buy it for myself. They just need to close the loop so that instead I buy the ebook for the library.

7 Responses to “An Open Letter to My Public Library”

  1. Dave P Says:

    Funny, our views of our library service are identical.
    I’ve forwarded your (brilliant) idea to my library

    Thanks E.

  2. La suggestion de l’usager numérique « Bibliomancienne Says:

    […] Pour lire la suite, c’est par ici. […]

  3. Doug E Says:

    Sounds like a great idea! Do libraries pay the same as anyone else for a book, or do publishers make them pay extra because it’s a loaner?

  4. J Donald Says:

    This would work for eBooks, but I think there could be a problem automatically accepting physical book purchases – namely, that shelf space is finite.

  5. John Cowan Says:

    Doug E.: They pay the same as anyone else in principle, though they often pay more because they need to use high-grade bindings that will stand a lot of use. If a book’s available only in paperback, for example, libraries will often rebind it in hard covers.

    J. Donald: Indeed. Libraries spend a lot of time, energy, and heartache deciding which books to “de-accession”, as it is politely called.

  6. Iain Says:

    An excellent idea, I just wonder how many people there are who see books as trophies to be viewed on their own bookshelves rather than necessarily read. It would be an imaginative idea to try though.

  7. Sarah Says:

    Such a fantastic idea. Good to see that libraries are coming back again. Such an incredible resource for information. This would allow people to directly contribute and extend the reading market.