In today’s Wall Street Journal, citing a January 2 story in the Washington Post, John Miller notes a trend in the library business: removing books that aren’t checked out often. It seems that no one has checked out For Whom the Bell Tolls in 24 months, and the Fairfax County Public Library may purge its copy.
In the retail industry, one would say that Hemingway has “low velocity” and replace him with something that “turns faster:” a best-seller. Libraries are stocking more new releases and cutting low velocity items to make space. For example, my local library stocks extra copies of popular new titles for 7-day checkout, no renewals. They used to charge a fee for these high-demand books, which I refused on principle. The extra books are later sold for a few dollars.
Why doesn’t Fairfax County library usage exhibit a Long Tail? Is its population of 1 million too small (68% are cardholders)? Search costs at a library are very low and, for residents, transportation cost isn’t a problem either (population density in Fairfax is 2,455 per square mile). The library has 8 locations and 12 community branches, which recieved 5.2 million visits in 2006 and loaned 11.3 million items. The collection is “nearly 3 million books… and other items.”
Are library users changing? Mr. Miller suggests that the Fairfax library is responding to customer needs: library users want to read new releases without spending $20 or $30.
If public libraries attempt to compete in this [increasingly competitive and diverse publishing and retail] environment , they will increasingly be seen for what Fairfax County apparently envisions them to be: welfare programs for middle-class readers who would rather borrow Nelson DeMille’s newest potboiler than spend a few dollars for it at their local Wal-Mart.
(I’m certainly guilty of this. I try not to buy books I haven’t already read. The public library spreads the cost of bad books over many readers, a valuable service. At the same time, I’m nonplussed by a library that doesn’t want to stock American classics – but I also like public institutions to save tax dollars by applying private-sector performance metrics like inventory turns and GMROI. I don’t know why Mr. Miller thinks that retail is a poor model for libraries; retail is one of the most innovative industries of the past 30 years.)
Finally, why are all the titles and authors in the Washington Post list so familiar? It’s implied that this list is complete and exhaustive:
The following books have been weeded from the shelves of various branches of the Fairfax County Public Library system or haven’t been checked out in 24 months and could be discarded.
But the 22 at-risk titles read like a who’s who: Hemingway, Stein, Proust, Faulkner, Hardy, Kerouac, Pasternak, Angelou, Williams, Bronte, Solzhenitsyn, Marlowe, Fitzgerald, Eliot – even To Kill a Mockingbird. This can’t be the whole story. After all, these titles aren’t being eliminated from the entire system – only from specific regional branches.