Lend Me Your Ear
In defence of public libraries
This country’s public libraries are hungry for content, especially for content that represents a range of voices and experiences — from Indigenous histories to French-language poets, from the memoirs of recent immigrants to the graphic novels of third- or fourth-generation Canadians. In the ten years ending in 2018, our librarians spent $714,376,318 on collections. And while books are just one of the many ways that libraries meet the social, economic, employment, recreational, and educational needs of their communities, they remain central to the larger mission. A great deal of that money, then, goes to the authors, illustrators, and publishers who create the volumes that public libraries — and their users — crave.
Recently, it’s been argued that the public library system is somehow nefarious, that this critical infrastructure of ours competes with Canada’s authors and publishers. “Libraries rely on the traffic generated by pimping free entertainment to people who can afford it,” Kenneth Whyte wrote in the Globe and Mail in late July. “All the genuine good they do is to some extent made possible by being a net harm to literature.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. Consider the impact of a single dollar that goes to a local public library. That dollar will yield an average of $5 in economic return on investment, and as much as $8 in, for example, Kawartha Lakes and Newmarket, Ontario. Based on a toolkit developed by the NORDIK Institute, that dollar will bring in, on average, close to $25 in social return on investment, reinforcing things like cultural integrity, cognitive development, and safe communities. And that dollar will undoubtedly support this country’s publishing industry.
The fact of the matter is Canadian publishers could not thrive without Canadian public libraries that are proud to focus on Canadian books and authors. The ecosystem is complex, yes, and many analysts misinterpret the buying patterns of libraries, which use consortia and jobbers to build scale into their collection development. To some, these sales look like business-to-business activities; left uncontextualized, the statistics can suggest that lending books is hurting the book business. But meaningful sales they are.
The first-sale doctrine allows you to lend a book that you own to a friend or family member. It allows you to donate that book or even resell it. That doctrine also applies to libraries, but, unlike you, libraries participate in the Public Lending Right Program, which distributes tens of thousands of payments to content creators every year. Since the federal program was established in 1986, it has paid out over a quarter of a billion dollars to Canadian copyright holders. This money is in addition to the original sales price of a physical book or the original licensing fee of an ebook.
Research by BookNet Canada, along with longitudinal studies by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, suggests that books retain their popularity longer in libraries than they do on retail shelves. Three-quarters of loans involve titles published more than a year ago — what publishers refer to as backlist items. An example might be Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, which came out in fall 2018 but remained the second most popular book at the Toronto Public Library sixteen months later. In bookshops, up to 60 percent of sales are recent works — the frontlist titles published within the past several months. As the University of Ottawa’s Michael Geist recently put it, “This distinction is important because it points to the fact that book loans from libraries actually become an important source of income for authors as their books move from the frontlist to the backlist.” (Often publishers retain PLR rights in contracts with their authors, so they’re actually the beneficiaries when you check out that novel.)
What’s more, the suggestion that libraries are somehow siphoning off sales from publishers ignores well-documented patterns of behaviour. According to a recent More Canada report on independent bookstores, “Library browsing and reading can substitute for book buying, but research data show that it also generates book purchases. Together, a public library branch and an independent bookstore will support and sustain higher levels of discovery and reading than either would generate on their own.” Libraries are an essential ingredient; without them, the recipe for Canadian books falls flat. Anyone who has ever spent time in the stacks knows how easy and exciting it is to find new writers (whether just published or published years ago). Libraries also host countless readings and events that help raise the profiles of those writers. In promoting an author’s newest book, libraries often anticipate renewed interested in their older books — and buy additional copies for the collection. And the Pew Research Center has confirmed what many of us know anecdotally: “Data show that those who use libraries are more likely than others to be book buyers and actually prefer to buy books, rather than borrow them.” Indeed, as the Book Publishers Association of Alberta put it on August 6, the shared value of public libraries is something to believe in “unequivocally.”
The core principles of twenty-first-century libraries are simple: We respect copyright and pay for what our patrons use. We also strategically focus on Canadian-authored and Canadian-published books. Any assertion to the contrary is false. The argument that lending books in this country is hurting authors or publishers is simply misguided and unsupported by research.