Posted by: Steven Harris | December 28, 2007


The fine folks over at Infodoodads have a post about Bookswim that is getting a lot of comments. Bookswim is a commercial service that delivers “rented” books to your home, in much the same manner as Netflix delivers videos. There is a momentary bit of hand wringing in the comments about whether this spells doom for libraries. Infodoodader Hannah keeps her head though and suggests that there is no threat. The main thrust of the post and the comments is then whether this is an economically viable service. Will people pay to have books delivered to them?

I’m thinking, why don’t libraries offer this service anyway?  For free!

I know there is the question of expense, but many libraries subsidize interlibrary loan. Why not this too? Make some adjustments in the materials budget and consider it a cost of doing business. There are some problems here. Netflix owns multiple copies of popular videos, so that a multitude of requests can be filled (although you still sometimes have to wait in line). Public libraries, however, purchase multiple copies of popular books. It is sort of a different mindset for both librarians and library users. Making up the reading list ahead of time, rather than serendipitously. Letting patrons check out book indefinitely. (Not sure that one works very well in the library world.)

Although the demands are much different, similar services have worked in academic libraries for years. See my buddy David Atkins’ “Library Express” service at the University of Tennessee. Tennessee folks with a campus address (sorry undergrads) can get books, bound periodicals, and photocopies of articles delivered right to them. Yay! In an academic environment, it’s unlikely that you have much of a waiting list. And the demands of reading are different: you aren’t compiling a list of things you eventually want to read. But, hey, the library could support popular reading in much the same way.

Here’s an odd thought: let patrons make their own selections from the McNaughton plan or approval vendor through an online selection interface. Deliver the book right to them, pre-cataloging. Then catalog the book when they return it.



  1. we DO offer this service — it’s called interlibrary loan. the only minor differences that I can see are that we often have late fees, and the occasional wait for new bestsellers, and usually people have to come to the library to pick up their books. although, even that is changing — i think is experimenting with some kind of patron-initiatiated ILL service that will deliver books to any location they request. I believe it is only in select states (Montana??)

    I am not a public librarian, but I THINK that there are still a few people out there who actually enjoy the physical library as place. Who enjoy browsing books, and selecting them in person, and just glancing around at the bulletin boards and exhibits that public libraries offer. Not everyone always wants to get things online and through the mail, do they?

    i have often wondered why public libraries and netflix (or blockbuster) don’t go into business together. seems like it would be an interesting, fun model…

  2. Good point, Amy. I’m thinking of interlibrary loan where we send the book right to the person. Some places do that, but not many.

    The idea of a library as an inviting physical space is something that I think we should continue to promote. See previous post. I don’t think it is entirely incompatible with the electronic library. But will require that we think pretty hard about what the space does and how we integrate the digital and the physical. Perhaps there will continue to be popular reading collections for those who prefer print on paper.

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