Refer Madness: Buyers and Borrowers


Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

A patron walked into the library and approached the desk.

“I was just at a bookstore but I didn’t want to buy too many,” she told me.

She had a list of books she wanted, some of which she got at the bookstore but a few she left to see if she could get through the library.

“Sometimes, when I buy books,” she said, “they just sit there. If I get it from the library, I’m reading up a storm.”

There is absolutely something to this. I have a bookcase full of books at home, yet I can’t remember the last time I picked one off those shelves to read over a library book. Because I know they’ll be there indefinitely, there’s no urgency to read them. A library book, on the other hand, has a deadline attached to it, and often a waitlist.

In the debate about library ebooks, one of the key points ignored by publishers is that there is broad overlap between library users and book buyers. More than that, the relationship between libraries/librarians and bookstores/authors is symbiotic. We may have different priorities, but I believe we’re on the same team and help each other immensely.

Yet publishers (and their new overlord Amazon) would have people believe libraries are parasites, stealing potential customers away from authors with free* books.

(* not actually free)

The book world isn’t a zero-sum game. In the case of this patron, everyone won. The bookstore and authors got paid, the library got checkout stats, the woman got what she wanted, and the books got read (victims of tsundoku aside).

I keep thinking of the quote from Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist about his illicit relationship with Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain:

You know, it could be like this, just like this, always.

In the context of the movie, this was a naive, desperate wish. I sincerely hope that’s not the case for the future of ebooks.

2 responses to “Refer Madness: Buyers and Borrowers”

  1. Sounds like you’ve read the September issue of Library Journal. 🙂 My fellow college librarians have been having discussions that start with “What the heck is Macmillan thinking?” Their position on ebooks may be ther best news for their competitors, and the worst for their investors.

    Good point about the deadline-based urgency of reading borrowed books. I had never thought of it, that way. As someone else with bookcases full of purchased tomes that I plan to get around to, eventually, the ones I take home from work are the ones that get read.

    1. Yeah, like I wrote in a previous post, they’re just shooting themselves in the foot. Each reader has their own priorities, but I don’t need to read a title the second it’s published, especially given their prices.