The Digital Reader

Charting the eBook Evolution since 2010

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Libraries and Amazon

January 26th, 2011 by · 1 Comment · opinion

Libraries and Amazon. Not exactly two words that are spoken in the same sentence without being to the detriment to the latter. Especially when the latter is also one of the largest book retailers in the world with a popular ereader that is heavy on the DRM and (most notably) currently incompatible for library ebook vendors.

But libraries working as Amazon Associates?

By the time I got home today, the Butler Public Library had removed the banner on their home screen announcing their partnership with Amazon (hence, no screenshot). You can still see the text indicating that if people click on the link and buy things from Amazon that the library can receive up to 15% of the price. At face value, that doesn’t sound like a bad deal to me. It’s a way to generate some additional funding without additional work by library staff and gives library supporters a way to give to the library as part of any online shopping they do with Amazon.

(It’s also not the only case of this type of partnership; this other example being from about four years ago now.)

Even as I typed the words of the last two sentences of the preceding paragraph, I can hear the chaffing of a thousand hands wringing from librarians coast-to-coast. Oh, we can’t get involved with a retail operation. That wouldn’t be right for the image of the library to be seen as endorsing one merchant. This kind of association pulls us away from our mission of information and education to that of retail and endorsement. We can’t possibly assist a corporation that could be the demise of libraries. And we certainly cannot partner with a company that is stodgy regarding copyright and takes a dim view of content.

Ok, that last sentence is one to which I would concede the point.  But I would press on and say that there are other points to consider. First, this type of arrangement places libraries in a unique ‘try before you buy’ position that doesn’t exist anywhere else. You liked the book or movie you borrowed? You can buy it here. Don’t want to miss an issue of the newspaper? Try a trial home subscription and see if you want to subscribe. Same thing for magazines. It creates a dynamic in which you can borrow it from one place (the library) or buy it from another (Amazon). And if you decide you were going to buy it anyway, why not do it through the library and give them a piece of the sale? There is an upside to positioning the library in line with Amazon.

Second, it knocks down the notion that Amazon and libraries are in competition or at odds with one another. Only if you squint and declare that both are involved in handling the same sort of materials could they actually be perceived as competing institutions. Amazon is a retailer, trying to put as many products into the hands of consumers as humanly possible. They sell stuff. They do not answer people on how to find information unless that information is how to buy more stuff. They will not help you with your resume (unless you want to buy a resume book), they will not help you learn how to use a computer (unless you want to buy a computer book), and they will not tell you where the bathroom is (maybe if you went to one of their centers, but probably not). The library is a public institution with a mission of literacy, education, and information. The library’s commodity is service in this goal. It won’t sell you the stuff within its walls (unless it happens to be on the book sale), but it can tell you where to find it. We will help you with your resume, how to use a computer, and, yes, where the bathroom is. Libraries and Amazon are simply not in the same business; the goals and aims of the organizations do not collide. There is no conflict of interest or intent.

Third, if you still have a problem with Amazon, you can take that kind of arrangement and work out a deal with local businesses. Imagine if a patron took their checkout receipt to the store and purchased the item on it; in return, the store gives a portion of the sale to the library. It recreates the same arrangement with Amazon and keeps the sale within the local economy. For whatever the library offers, there can be a benefit offered through a mutually beneficial arrangement with a similar business or service. The limitations are only the ones you put in place.

And lastly, in a financial environment that could simply be described as ‘arid’, the capability of libraries to raise money from an assortment of sources is imperative. The idea that one source of income is somehow less desirable than others due to the point of origin (retail) is a bit absurd considering how readily libraries will compete for prizes offered by vendors. If you have any remaining doubts on this particular point, open up any state or national library conference program and take note of corporate sponsorships of events, awards, or even ice cream giveaways. Librarians and libraries don’t have a problem taking money from these sources nor should they. When one is trying to keep the doors open, any income is still income. And while some may think that it is better to close than to sell out, I doubt the surrounding community would feel the same way.

Certainly, it’s a touchy subject for a library to partner with a corporation such as Amazon in that capacity. However, in my estimation, the pros outweigh the cons. It generates revenue for the library, it positions the library to offer a ways for patrons to purchase items as well as donate the library, and it can be modified to work for local businesses. Not every business that is involved with the same materials is a competition for libraries; in fact, it behooves libraries to find more of these types of partnerships in order to survive and thrive. There are business and corporate partners who have an eye towards doing good things for communities. All it takes is a little outreach on the part of the library to make it happen.

So, go on. Click on that link without guilt. It’s going to a good cause.

reposted with permission from Agnostic Maybe

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Bob Wilson

    “First, this type of arrangement places libraries in a unique ‘try before you buy’ position that doesn’t exist anywhere else. ”

    Actually, I do it in the reverse order. Amazon let’s you download the first chapter of books free. So I try them out and if the book looks promising I reserve it at the library.

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