Quote and Credit

Quote and Credit


Barnes and Noble Learns a Lesson from Libraries (Too Late)

So Barnes and Noble is closing their flagship bookstore in Lincoln Center. It dominated that triangle for 15 years, and was one of my favorite places...to arrange meetings, to browse the magazines and more, It was central to my Manhattan life for a long time. I met Elmore Leonard there. I watched Steve Earle play half a set and read from his book there. It also probably had the highest collective IQ group of customers of any Barnes and Noble in the country. (That is a guess, but the rest of this post isn't)

Here is a secret about bookstores. They have the same problem as libraries, but have to show a profit too.

Usage studies will show you 99% of books in any library never circulate. That's right...no one ever takes them out. Does that diminish their usefulness or utility? Not one bit. You see, it is impossible for a bean counter to measure the effectiveness of a book on an impressionable mind. Who knows what impact one obscure, buried volume will have on the one right person who finds it? You can't anticipate it, you can't predict it, you can't even imagine it, but if the book isn't there...THEN it is useless. The true value of a library is the potential, not the statistics.

Libraries are often subject to ill-advised "usage" studies by efficiency "experts" and account managers...and they are often one of the first things to go when a company cuts cost. Why? Because their usefulness can not be measured. It is not a "business" model which is applicable to financial appraisal. That's why libraries are funded by public money and endowments. Because they are too damn important to leave up to accountants who don't understand them and attempt to apply financial standards to them which do not work.

I'm sorry to see Barnes and Noble go, but they are falling victim to the same thing...they carry an enormous inventory, but 99% of the books sit on the shelve while the top 1% of sales, best-sellers mostly, account for an enormous percentage of the shop income. But unlike libraries...they are subject to economic pressures which the great libraries aren't...the need to show a profit.

I'm just sorry they put all the small, better managed local bookstores who knew their clientele out of business before they learned the lesson. And the lesson is? One nationwide bookstore with a cookie-cutter huge inventory all over has just learned it. 99% of the titles don't circulate. But you still have to pay to store them.

by Jim Linderman


  1. Barnes and Noble is great for their bargain books. Hardcovers for $5-$8 are great IMHO.

  2. Where did you read that 99% of library books don't circulate? I'm not asking to be critical, I'm just curious and would like to read the usage studies you mentioned. I work for a very high-traffic public library that circulates millions of items every year, so for our system, those statistics wouldn't match up at all.

    Also, I believe that if a public library isn't circulating 99% of the books it owns, then there's a very serious collection development issue going on. Either they're not buying what people want/need, or they're not weeding out-of-date materials.

    That being said, I could definitely see an academic library having these kinds of circulation problems.

  3. Nearly every serious, accurate usage study conducted in large libraries, in particular research libraries, (and certainly as large as the Lincoln Center B&N) but virtually all, indicate circulation drops WAY off after the most popular 1% of titles. That's just the way it is. I have a degree in library science and have worked in (or right down the hall) for many years, in one case with an annual acquisitions budget of half a million dollars a year. We conducted studies to see what we could weed, microfilm or store in retrieval systems, and we found after a year on the shelf, usage, measured both by actual reshelving counts, circulation statistics and even citation analysis, that the vast majority of materials are archived, not used. That does NOT diminish their utility one bit...but the analogy is sound when applied to bookstores as well. Small, local libraries "in touch" with their users MIGHT do a bit better, but In large, serious collections, the usage line drops like a stone after the first year a book or journal is held. THANKS for contributing!

  4. Interesting parallel, and your point is a good one about bookstores needing to move stock to survive... still, as impressive as that statistic is, it's incredibly misleading to use it generally for all libraries in the United States.

    I've no doubt your numbers hold true FOR A LARGE, ACADEMIC RESEARCH COLLECTION, where depth and completeness are important to the library's mission. Public libraries, however-- with the rare exceptions of public research collections like NYPL-- are going to have significantly higher circ numbers. (I would also argue, for the sake of your point, that a public library's holdings would be a much fairer comparison to a bookstore chain's stock than an academic library's holdings.)

    How much higher? Let's get concrete, here: I've worked in a medium-sized suburban public library in NY for 12 years now. Our holdings total just under 200,000 titles; our acquisitions budget is about $475,000, of which 60% is for print.

    It would take me half the night to run reports on our entire collection, so I picked two sections: the 900s in adult non-fiction (history, geography & travel, mostly) and general adult fiction. (Very bookstore-like, nothing terribly esoteric.) Taking your "after the first year" assumption, I ran usage reports looking for materials that had not circulated for at least 2 years from this date (a "dusty list" in library parlance).

    The 900s collection totals 7,620 titles; of those, 3,615 have not circ'ed in 2 years-- 47.4%. (That means more than half DID circulate.)

    Adult fiction totals 13,985 titles; of those, 3,331 have not circ'ed in 2 years-- 23.8%. (Over three-quarters, still going out.)

    99%? I don't think so.

  5. The 99% stagnation figure sounds about right for the academic library at my home institution. Unfortunately, like book stores, our library is held to a profit standard. The University turns a skeptical eye to any department that does not bring in money, and the library has been getting the evil eye for about two years now. It seems our accountants have been left to measure the library's value.

  6. As somebody who's been working in public libraries for over a decade, let me chime in. The stock turnover rate for most of our collection is somewhere in the range of 4-6 circulations per year. That means on average, every item in the library goes out about 5 times each year. Of course, that's an average. There are some areas that don't circulate, but the highest percentage of books we have that don't circulate in a given year is about 20-25% in areas like language, literature, and history. However, it's important to have those less popular and harder to find materials around in case people want them after 14 months or even 3 or 4 years.

    As for Barnes & Noble, it's been my experience that their stores in my area have mostly best-sellers, popular non-fiction, and a few classics but can get the more obscure, titles from their warehouses in a week or less IF THEY'RE STILL IN PRINT.

    I would argue that it's the purpose of the library to provide ongoing access to those things that bookstores (of any type) can't provide on an ongoing basis. Unfortunately many libraries have lost their view of the larger mission of libraries and are trying to focus on books as a commodity, making decisions based only on numbers.

  7. I'm an academic librarian, too, and I'm not familiar with that 99% statistic. What we hear most often is the 80/20 rule: 20% of a collection is used by 80% of its readers. Of course, I work at a large research institution, so perhaps the more obscure corners of our collection is used more heavily than is the average.

    My understanding for public libraries is that there is a very direct correlation between circulation and funding. My public library friends tell me that one reason that graphic novels have been such a popular addition to public library collections is that their circ stats sky-rocket. Books that don't circulate get weeded and are replaced with titles that will have greater success.

    An irony of the B&N/library comparison: while B&N may have needed to think more like a library in the collection development/storage department, libraries have been HEAVILY influenced by B&N in the coffee-while-you-read department. My library bowed to popular pressure 10 years ago and installed a coffee bar in the lobby. Almost all of our peers have done the same. "People expect it, because of Barnes & Noble," I hear over and over again.

    Gee, thanks.