by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine
I buy books. I buy lots of books. I donate the books I have read to a busy, neighborhood public library. If I didn’t donate the books to the library, I and my nonbook belongings would be sitting out on the curb and the books would have taken over my apartment. When I asked the librarian overseeing my donations whether they were making a visible contribution to the library’s collection in its most popular fiction category (mysteries, alright!), she just snickered at the very question and then drawled, “Oh, ye-e-s!”
For some reason, my Amazon-aholism does not extend to used books. For those, I turn to Alibris. Every now and then, Alibris sends me a message. The latest Alibris message announced a new Donate-A-Book project. You click on the Donate-A-Book link appearing in the upper-right corner of a strip of options topping the Alibris home page and whoosh off to a page where you can enter the name of a wishlist creator, their email domain name, or a state. You can even click on a state in an outline map of the U.S. to reach all the wishlists set up by participating libraries, schools, and nonprofit organizations in that state. Click on a book title appearing in a wishlist and Alibris presents you with its standard search result page, identifying bookstores holding the item, price, condition, etc. Add the item to your shopping cart and Alibris does the rest, sending your purchase directly to the wishful party. The announcement even hinted at a little motivational feedback: “The receiving organization may respond with a word of thanks to you.” Of course, if the feedback arrives directly, that would mean that the “wisher” now has your email address.
As a fairly frequent Alibris purchaser (nothing like my weekly visits to and from Amazon and its UPS minions, of course), what struck me as ironic about the process was the focus on used books. If the purchasing experience of Donate-A-Book users is anything like mine, they will find many of the used books already bearing scratched over library identification marks. Used book dealers in the Alibris network apparently spend half their time down at “Friends of X Library” book sales, picking up bargains. So this Alibris program should often end up selling books weeded from one library’s collection for addition to another library’s collection.
As the old World War II patriotic slogan ran: “Was this trip really necessary?” I’m pretty sure that many libraries would be happy to donate a book to another library. The 1stReads.org program operates a similar wishlist program, but for new books, or at least “one-user” books. Steve Coffman, the experienced public librarian who set up 1stReads, put in a lot of features designed to appeal to librarians and donors, in particular protecting libraries from becoming the dumping ground for low-demand material.
Now, understand! I am not suggesting that Alibris is doing anything wrong here, or that libraries and schools and charities shouldn’t take advantage of its wishlist program or any other wishlist options, including those at online booksellers such as Amazon.com. What kind of bothers me is that such programs are being run by vendors with a vested interest in selling books, instead of libraries with a vested interest in ensuring the maximum amount of use for the books they have already purchased, even by patrons not their own. Automating old-fashioned book exchanges would seem an attractive alternative.
I’m sure that someone among my beloved readers is going to call, email, or write and tell me about some really slick service that some really sharp librarian(s) have set up to do exactly this and about how well it is working in some city or county or state or consortium area. We information professionals working in libraries are notorious for our clever innovations, often done on a shoestring. Just go to any conference. Read any professional journal. Subscribe to any list or blog in the field. Over and over you will see stories of “how we did it good.” And the info pros telling the tales are right: They did do it good.
But we don’t all do it good enough and never all at the same time. As a profession, we librarians, we information professionals working for the information consumer, must establish a clear, new image of what we do. The people who may or may not use our services, but who all have something to do with paying for them, often still think our primary function is to tend to collections of print materials sitting in buildings designed for that purpose. We know that our roles have expanded way beyond that service into the digital information world, but, unless we can convince our constituents, bosses, and funders of our unique capabilities for service in these areas, it’s white water ahead.
In a recent newsletter circulated among traditional library vendors, a very acute observer of the information industry and libraries predicted, “So what are the options for libraries? We’ll see a wildly divergent library community developing over the next three to five years … Valuable functions, hitherto performed by the library, will be maintained but such functions will be outsourced or otherwise transformed into something closer to the ‘just in time’ model widely seen in corporate environments. (There are hints of this even now in some academic environments.)” And this guru wondered whether such a phenomenon could represent a potential business opportunity for vendors.
It often seems that whenever a major change occurs in librarianship, one that affects all or almost all libraries and one that the entire profession recognizes and acknowledges as a major shift, such sea changes always come with vendors attached. The most notable example historically is OCLC, but, created and led by librarians as OCLC was and is, it still behaves like a vendor. As a profession, we and our budgets don’t seem able to escape from our constituent-bound identities to create the coordinated, profession-wide changes even in this Web 2.0 world of advanced networking. The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) does not have a program whereby its members could tithe their massive budgets to solve the problems of who funds open access, despite the fact that most members would probably agree that properly managed open access scholarship offers the best chance of escape from the tyranny of endlessly rising journal costs from scholarly publishers. Even when librarians try to set up nationwide solutions to problems in libraries around the nation, like Coffman’s 1stReads.org service, the route they take is a vendor model.
Library consortia have proved very successful at the state and regional level, but not nationally or internationally. It would be better for our profession if we could pull off big, well-publicized solutions that change the perception of what we do for our clients and how much people everywhere need what we do. And by big, I mean national and international. And by our profession, I don’t mean vendors, though — of course — vendors would be working for us in the background.
Don’t you think so? You know I am always right — occasionally inaccurate, but always right.
Barbara Quint's e-mail
address is firstname.lastname@example.org.