In this age of “discoverability gaps” and “dwindling shelf space”, we neglect libraries at our peril. As our LibScan feature demonstrates, and the PLR numbers reflect, libraries continue to get books to readers they might not otherwise encounter. More books get borrowed from libraries in a year than are bought in bookshops, but more importantly libraries underpin the nation’s literary health in ways we cannot count. Books or authors that do well in libraries do not necessarily do as well through booksellers—the two worlds are distinct and mutually beneficial.
That is not to deny that there is a natural tension between publishers, booksellers and libraries—one that has become taut thanks to the issue of e-books in libraries.
Libraries are a public good and fulfil a social need, and yet they must work with the book industry that delivers the content they share. In the physical world the two have had decades to accommodate each other; in the digital space, just a few years. It is little wonder that both publishers and booksellers are wary of extending the concept of “free” into the frictionless digital realm.
But we should not forget that libraries also pay: they buy the books (at a premium) in the first place (and with backlist titles continue to buy them when the books fall apart), and they pay authors through the PLR system, which this year will pay out more than £6m to 23,000 authors.
The least the Sieghart Review into e-book lending could do is make sure these payments are extended to e-book loans; the least the present government could do is make sure the current management of PLR is maintained, wherever it is housed.
On the eve of National Libraries Day, the trade would be wise to push libraries further up its watch-list, to think beyond dilapidated buildings, declining book stock, and government inaction, and redouble efforts to seize the myriad opportunities to continue to promote books and authors and build off the natural enthusiasm of librarians (and volunteers) for published content.
Libraries deliver at the micro-level despite the challenges they face from above, and it is vital we recognise this. Worrying about libraries is not the same as running them down. The government said last week that the library service was “not in crisis”. The rest of us need not be so myopic.