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What the Public Library Could Learn from Barnes & Noble revisited

An editorial in Forbes magazine (now withdrawn), suggested quite seriously that public libraries be replaced by Amazon bookstores in every community:

Amazon should open their own bookstores in all local communities. They can replace local libraries and save taxpayers lots of money, while enhancing the value of their stock. 

The article was countered by a lots of fervent public library advocates and users. (Nate Hoffelder on The Digital Reader, for example.) And quite rightly so - it was an ill-conceived editorial and Forbes should be embarassed for lowing their standards for having published it - even as click bait.

The article did remind me of an editorial I wrote for the local paper way, way back in 1996, soon after a Barnes & Noble bookstore opened in our community. While I would have never suggested that this shiny commercial bookstore replace our somewhat dysfunctional and underfunded public resource, I did believe then, as I do now, that public services can learn from the business community.

Oh, I got a lot of heat for this piece, especially from the retiring library director who was our guest speaker at Kiwanis the day it was public. Talk about good timing - not.


What the Public Library Could Learn from Barnes & Noble
Mankato Free Press, June 3, 1996

My 10 year old son gave me pause the other day. He asked to if I’d take him out after supper to see if the latest book in his favorite Goosebump series was out. Normal kid-type request. 

But then he added, “While we’re at Barnes & Noble, I want to ….”

I don’t think it even entered his mind that the first place to check for a book would be his public library. In fact, it didn’t occur to me either until we on our way home full of cookies and cappuccino, and twenty bucks or so lighter in the wallet.

What has happened that this career librarian (and life-long library lover and supporter) would head to a bookstore instead of the public library to satisfy his family’s reading needs?

Maybe a comparison between Barnes & Noble and the local library would be useful?

1. Hours
My son wanted to get his book on a Sunday. B&N is open in Mankato every evening in the week - Sunday’s included - 95 hours a week. The public library is only open until 8PM four nights a week and on Sundays not at all. 38 hours less than B&N. Sort of convenient having a place to get a book beyond the workday.

2. Selection
If I want old stuff (which is sometimes exactly what I want), I’ll hit the public library, no hesitation. But try to find anything new at the library:
    Best sellers - out, and a long waiting list. 
    Travel guides - 3 to 4 years old. 
    New video tapes, audio-books, computer games - forget about it! 
B&N not only has plenty of the newest stuff, they promote it. They revel in it. And when it gets old and stale, like bread, it gets discounted and never comes back to clutter the shelves. At B&N, I don’t have to wade through 8 old copies of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide to get to this year’s edition.

My next experiment is to request a book inter-library loan on the same day that I order an out of stock item from B&N. Who will get the material to me the fastest? Oh, and I have to fill out my own loan form at the library; B&N requests the book for me.

3. Service
I’ve got to admit most of our public librarians know their stuff. And they are friendly, tenacious and willing to help. The fact that only a couple may be on duty during busy times does tend to diminish their effectiveness. B&N clerks are nice enough, and since they tend to be readers themselves, can sometimes recommend a romance or thriller. They can usually get you to the cookbook or auto repair section, but they have difficulty when you don’t know if the book might just as easily fall under the category of education, current issues, or political science. And they don’t do reference either.

The one terrific thing that the B&N could learn from the library is its catalog. Big bookstores really need public terminals which serve as guides to their stock. I get jealous when the clerk gets to use the computer, and I don’t.

4. Costs
Ah, you’re saying, now the real advantage of the library will shine through. Those books at B&N are at least $20 a piece, even $10 or more for a paperback. Library books are free, or more accurately, paid for indirectly by my city, county, state and federal taxes.

Library books are free when they are available (see above). What the public library really ought to do is charge patrons about $3 a week to read the latest pot boilers, and take that revenue and buy (here’s a concept) multiple copies. Sort of like at the videotape store. After the newness wears off, the novel goes back to the free shelves.

Library books aren’t free unless you return them on time. I hate due dates on books. Once upon a time I had a life which allowed me the leisure to read two or three recreational books a week. I never got a fine. Now I am lucky to get through one “pleasure” novel a month, and I am always getting fines. Still cheaper than shucking out a Hamilton, right? Yes, but along with the fine comes a little humiliation, a feeling that you just aren’t quite the citizen your momma raised you to be. If my novel of the month costs $20, so be it. I’ll be careful not to dogear it so I can give it to my brother-in-law for Christmas.

5. Ambiance and location
Here’s the place that the public library needs to sit up and take notice! Where do you go not just to read, but to sit in fine comfortable, clean chairs? Sip a cup of coffee and eat a cookie while reading? Hear a live string quartet softly play in the background? It ain’t my library! No food, no drinks, no noise, no nothing. Would it kill those librarians if I brought in my own thermos of coffee or can of pop? B&N owns its books. Why does its manager trust me not to slobber or spill there?

Our B&N is close to our Walmart, K-Mart, discount grocery store,and shopping center - places I get near to at least a couple times a week. Our public library is in our rather dead downtown - where I go on purpose once or twice a year. The library requires a special trip. B&N is handy.

6. Programming
Well, the public library still has a story times for children, I believe, but I don’t know exactly when. B&N, the flyer they send out tells me, this month alone has children’s stories, a children’s play, poetry readings, author signings, a singer, a storyteller, a book discussion group, and experts talking on subjects as diverse as women aviators and divorce. The technology side of the store holds computer game days, a Q&A session on Windows 95, and seminars on connecting to the Internet. 

One of the primary missions of the public library in this country has been adult education. The public library, like the public schools, has been an educational equalizer between the economic haves and have-nots. B&N seems to taking on an educational mission as well - and the opportunities it provides are relevant, valuable, and (gasp) fun! And it doesn’t do it passively - it reaches out and grabs the public. Take notice, public library - just letting the books sit on the shelves until a patron is motivated to come and learn doesn’t cut it anymore, if it ever really did. You need an active, exciting, educational program, and offer, not just resources, but skills if you want to stay viable in this information-glutted society.

Poor financing is only one reason our public libraries have lost their eminence as the cultural and education hub of the community. Other reasons may include a lack of vision, imagination and willingness to serve the public in critical ways. Maybe the library board doesn’t need to do a nation-wide search for a new administrator. Maybe it only needs to see if it can recruit the manager from Barnes & Noble.


Is the contest for user now between the public library and Amazon? What could libraries learn from Amazon? Data-driven readers advisory? Readily available best sellers on a subscription basis? 

I use our fine Dakota Country Library quite a lot, but I rarely darken their doors. It's their electronic resources, especially downloadable audio books, that I take advantage of. Good job. Now let's do more.

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Reader Comments (2)

Since all my reading is done with audiobooks, I have tried on numerous occasions to download the next book I want from the public library. I've never been successful because if the book is available, there is always a long wait in line. Perhaps it says something about my inability to wait patiently, I always buy the copy I want from Audible because the relatively minor expense is worth my immediate gratification.

July 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterFloyd Pentlin

Hi Floyd,

I buy a lot more ebooks that I get from the library. Long waits and due dates put me off. I never buy audio books for some reason. Maybe because I listen more often to biographies and nonfiction. Different strokes.

Maybe as I need to economize more in retirement, I will patiently wait for my library to deliver!

Good hearing from you,


July 26, 2018 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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