Two interesting news items have recently caught my eye. One from the New York Times "Libraries See Opening as Bookstores Close" and one from the Daily Telegraph "Bookshop numbers halve in just seven years" I don't think there should be any surprise that bookshops are continuing their decline - over 1 per day in the UK would seem to be the average, and there are a variety of reasons that are being given for it. Amazon is blamed of course, as are supermarkets, and eBooks come in for a fair amount of stick as well. The Telegraph quotes the figures that British consumers spent £261 million on e-books this year, almost double the £138 million spent in 2011. At the same time physical book sales fell from £3.3 billion last year to £3.1 billion this year.
The Telegraph article doesn't mention libraries, while the NYT is almost exclusively focussed on them, taking the view that libraries are replacing bookstores. The point is however being almost entirely being missed. The only thing that bookshops and libraries have really got in common is that both of them use the printed word as a coin of activity. For bookshops, that's their only coin - they just exist to sell books, and there's nothing wrong with that - it's what they've always done, and it's what they'll always do, until the final one closes its door. Or they diversify within their niche. A good example of this is Forbidden Planet - which I've been visiting for years. I just visited the website and it's branding itself as a cult entertainment megastore, and that's a pretty good description, since it sells books, comics, games, models, clothing, posters, toys and so on around the area of science fiction. I visit it every time I'm in London, and I'll usually find something to buy. However, thinking about it, I don't tend to visit it *as a bookshop* I visit because I want to see what's going on. I'm very unlikely to buy a Dr Who model, but I like to see what's there, but in getting me there, I'm going to see what's available in the way of Dr Who books. comics and other merchandise. FP as it is fondly known caters to a very specific community - of science fiction and fantasy fans, as well as general book readers and comic consumers. It also has a very nice website to back up the stores, and it has very knowledgable staff. In actual fact, it sounds to me as though it's more like a library than a bookshop really - because what it's really doing is providing a service to a community.
Libraries do not provide books. I'll say it again. Libraries do not provide books. They provide access to entertainment, they provide formatting options that members can use to read what interests them. They provide access to computers and so on. But that's just the trappings, and it's all too easy to confuse that with the real purpose of the library, which is to serve and hopefully improve the community that it it is in, and the people of that community which make up its members. I go into a bookshop and I buy a book, then I leave. Sure, I might wander around a bit, but it's a pretty cold and calculating transaction. If I come out without a book, the bookshop has essentially failed in its primary purpose, which is to make money out of my purchase of a book. However, I can walk out of a library empty handed, but I could have used a computer, been taught something, had an opportunity to work with a librarian to research something, have filled out an online form, have discovered how to take an ex employer to a tribunal, have got a lead for a new job and so on.
I really rather hope that libraries DON'T replace bookshops, because I wouldn't want them to dilute their offerings to me. It's much more important to a community that we protect the library than the bookshop, because sad to say, we can manage more easily without bookshops than we can without libraries. A bookshop is for the few, a library is for everyone. Of course, I hate the idea of bookshops closing - I can't resist peeking into them whenever I can, but if a bookshop is to survive it needs to change - the bookshop needs to become more like a library, a library doesn't need to become more like a bookshop.