Are Libraries Becoming More Like Bookstores?

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The number of bookstores has been in steady decline in recent years, dropping from over 38,500 establishments in 2004 to just over 28,300 in 2012. Following this trend, Statista projects that there will be around 22,500 bookstores in the United States by the close of 2018. Though this may look disheartening for the modern bibliophile, things aren’t as bleak as they seem. Libraries across the country are implementing innovative strategies designed to serve users in much the same way that bookstores have. As you pursue your library science degree, it’s important to consider the ways in which libraries are changing and how this evolution might impact your future career.

The future of America’s libraries may soon merge with the feel of the longstanding bookstore, offering a space where visitors are catered to as customers in a continuously evolving environment.

Hosting Touring Authors

Bookstores have long been the traditional venue for book signings and sales, but this trend is changing. Now libraries are equipping themselves to enter this space, as well. Authors who bring their new releases to the library landscape are still finding a welcoming community anxious to embrace new books. Martha Conway, author of Thieving Forest, commented on the trend, saying, “I was about halfway through my book tour in Ohio when I noticed something strange: I had not yet laid eyes on a bookstore.”

Rather than frequenting bookstores, the writer went on an eight-library tour, reporting that all but one of her readings were well-attended. Though the events weren’t hosted in a traditionally commercial venue, Conway still sold her books at the end. She was even able to offer them at a discounted price because there was no bookstore profit.

Conway went on to report that she “was told that people drove for miles to attend” events at libraries. According to the American Library Association’s 2015 Fact Sheet, there are an estimated 16,536 Public Libraries in the United States. This vast library landscape gives authors in varying genres access to a rich and varied audience throughout the country, allowing valuable discourse on the written word to continue to thrive despite the declining state of the bookstore.

Offering Intuitive Book Organization

Some libraries are moving away from the Dewey Decimal system to organize their resources in what some believe is a more intuitive way, using the bookstores classification system BISAC.

Though Dewey Decimal is still widely popular in educational settings, the departure from its use has expanded into many public library systems. The Rakow Branch Library in Elgin, Illinois categorizes book by subject, then uses the Dewey Decimal number within each category, just as many bookstores do. The Pauline Haass Library in Sussex, Wisconsin has moved to a similar organizational method, as well.

Libraries are also using central tables and entry displays to highlight new releases, trending books, or resources suited to a particular theme, such as seasonal classics around the winter holidays. These strategies mimic the look and layout of bookstores, inviting patrons in for a similar type of browsing experience.

Serving Patrons Turned Customers

Thanks to modern technology, libraries today are well equipped to understand and serve the distinct needs of their local populations. A 2012 piece in The New York Times, titled “Libraries See Opening as Bookstores Close” notes that library users are now often referred to as customers, as public libraries seek to fill the void left by many closing bookstores.

A book tracking system in an Arlington Heights, Illinois library ensures readers’ tastes are well served by automatically ordering another copy of any book that has three hold requests on it. The executive director of the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, Jason Kuhl, comments that “A library has limited shelf space, so you almost have to think of it as a store, and stock it with the things that people want.”

When it’s time to free up space on shelves for new trending titles, libraries take over the role of bookstores in another way by selling unwanted copies of various titles that are leaving the premises for good. Revenue from these book sales typically go back into the library’s budget to fund other programs and projects, keeping the machine running.

Crossing the Digital Bridge

Ebooks, notable competitors for ink-and-paper tomes, may ebb and flow in their popularity, but they’re a fixture that seems poised to stay in the literary market. Bookstores, both brick-and-mortar and online, aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the ebook trend. Libraries are getting in on the act, too.

According to the Library Journal 2015 report “Survey of Ebook Usage in U.S. Public Libraries,” 94 percent of libraries offer ebooks to users. Lack of funding is the primary obstacle to adoption for the small percentage of libraries that do not yet carry ebooks. These are available through a variety of library lending models that offer limited access to digital publications. Though these are furthering users’ access to ebooks, some contend that they’re not yet sufficient to meet the needs of the modern library customer.

The Sacramento Public Library states that “publishers limit the content available through library lending models and the usability of these services is also inferior to their retail counterparts.” In an attempt to bridge this gap, the library offers nearly 300 e-readers that are pre-loaded with genre-specific content. These circulate for three-week loan periods, providing access to 500 ebook titles across all devices. Creative solutions like this give library users the chance to try out e-readers with all the convenience of bookstore offerings and less of the commitment or expense.

Far from disappearing from our high-tech society, books and libraries are simply finding a new face and fresh ways to integrate themselves into readers’ lifestyles. Public libraries are working hard to keep up with all the latest trends, continuing in their mission to make valuable resources readily available to the public.

If you’re excited about the possibilities on the horizon for the library of the future, consider pursuing an advanced degree. TheUSC Master of Management in Library and Information Science online degree can give you the foundation you need to become a library leader of the future.


Number of Bookstore in the United States from 2004 to 2018 –

Are Libraries the NEW Bookstores? – Writer Unboxed

Number of Libraries in the United States – American Library Association

Dewey Decimal System in the 21st Century – StateTech Magazine

Are Dewey’s Days Numbered Libraries Across the Country are giving the Old Classification System the Heave Ho Here is One Schools Story – School Library Journal

No, e-books sales are not falling, despite what publishers say – Fortune

E-book Usage in U.S. Public Libraries – School Library Journal

Libraries See Opening as Bookstores Close – The New York Times