This last July, Forbes published an essay that suggested Amazon stores could replace libraries. The piece was pulled down within a couple days, after nearly 8,000 comments on Twitter and a great many response pieces suggesting that this wasn’t even a bad argument, but “twaddle.” These responses emphasized the role that libraries play in providing services (beyond just books) to people who otherwise might not have access to them.
Some recent library user research we conducted in partnership with the Worthington Libraries in Ohio suggests that these criticisms of the Forbes piece don’t go far enough. Not only isn’t Amazon a replacement for libraries, but our statistical models indicate that library use supports commercial book sales as well as other social and retail activities.
In short: if you want to look for more customers for your online book business, look in libraries.
Amazon and libraries: complementary, not competitive
For this study, we partnered with the public library in Worthington, Ohio, USA. They are undertaking a strategic planning process and asked if we could partner in designing some user-behavior studies. These data come from working with them, and we’re very grateful that they’re OK with us sharing it widely.
We gathered a lot of data in our work, but for our apples-to-apples analysis of the Forbes editorial, here are the three I’d like to highlight:
People who shop for books online are more likely to check out books from the library.
People who browse library shelves buy more items online.
First, we see that people who shop online for books are more likely to check them out from the library. If the Forbes editorial was correct—and Amazon is a replacement for libraries—we’d expect that line to go the other way. Similarly, we see that people who even browse the shelves in a library are more likely to buy media online.
I can hear the naysayers, though, as they claim, “But wait! Maybe people are simply using the library as a free ‘browsing’ experience, and then fulfilling their needs through online retail.” Not so fast, imaginary debate opponent.
People who download items from the library shop for items online more.
We see here that people who download library items—not just browse the physical shelves—also are more likely to shop for online media.
All of these data point to one conclusion that many in the library field have known for years—library users are more frequent customers for retail book vendors.
Good libraries make for better customers
These data represent a quantitative argument that libraries are not just important to the people who use library services, but to the businesses in adjacent spaces. Whether library use drives retail book buying or just tracks it, we can see that they’re directly related.
But in the end, what matters the most may be the qualitative feedback: thousands of patrons coming to libraries’ defense. They argued against the editorial in no uncertain terms. This support clearly demonstrates the value of the library’s presence and brand.
Acknowledgment: Special thanks to the following OCLC and Worthington Libraries staff for their help in authoring this post: Lynn Silipigni Connaway, Ph.D., OCLC Director, Library Trends and User Research; Kara Reuter, Ph.D., Digital Library Manager, Worthington Libraries; and Lisa Fuller, Director of Community Engagement, Worthington Libraries.