May 26, 2009 10:38 pm


Are you one of those who worries that the internet will kill the print media by rendering it unprofitable? Believe it or not, for decades publishers worried that t Andrew Carnegie's efforts to build a public library in every American town would render books and magazines unprofitable. Why would people buy a book or a magazine if they can read it for free at their local public library? Asked some. The libraries create a new market for books, responded the others.

On February 16, 1902, the NYT argued that Carnegie library booming book trade

Mr. Carnegie has established, within the past two years, more than 300 libraries in cities and towns in almost every state and territory in the Union, and is planning to establish more in the future. At the same time there has been a great boom in the book trade, believed to be in a measure due to Mr. Carnegie's munificence.

Publishers and book jobbers in this city agree that the enormous sum given by Mr. Carnegie has done much to stimulate the trade and to increase the demand for books. They agreed also that while the establishment of these libraries has already been of great benefit to the trade the movement will continue towards further improvement as the interest in the books grows, because it will be necessary for all the new libraries to continue to replenish their shelves with new publications and to replace the standard books from time to time as the old volumes become worn. . . .

Only one of the big publishers considered the effect of Mr. Carnegie's gift at all doubtful.

"It is an open question," said he."There are some points which certainly do affect the trade unfavorably, while it is true that there are many points which it is a great benefit. I am not prepared to discuss the question at this time."

The jobbers of books and magazines, who solicit bids for the equipment of new libraries, and who often come in active competition with the publishers, were inclined to to look at the dark side of the question, though their main grievance seems to be about the alleged harmful incluence of libraries in the smaller towns upon the magazine and current weekly periodical trade.

They say that a library in a town of 10,000 or 20,000 persons has a harmful influence upon sales, because the residents instead of buying magazines for themselves, go to reading rooms of the library and read them there. If this be true of the magazine, they hold that it must be true of the book trade, although they admit that their sales of popular novels has been unprecedented during the past two or three years and is increasing steadily.

But the debate was far from over as this NYT book review article dating from from July 22, 1928 makes clear:

London: IF a publisher refers to"the library problem," he is thinking of the effect of the subscription libraries upon the book trade. They buy many books, it is true, but do they buy as fly as would be sold to individual readers if there were no opportunity of borrowing?

Yes, as Yogi Bera said: It is deja vu all over again.

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