Does a Library Need Books?

How the Boston Public Library and other libraries are adapting (or not) to the world of digital media.

The HBS library around me is busy – three quarters of the nearby seats are occupied and dozens of people are working on laptops, looking at smartphones, or reading printouts.  Only one person is reading an actual book; the surrounding books serve more as decoration for the “library atmosphere” than an actual resource.

Over 30% of Americans now own an eReader and  more than 60% own a smartphone1. While book sales overall are growing (up 8% from 2008 to 2013), print book sales are declining (down 8% over the same period)2. Historically, libraries were institutions which delivered value by storing printed media and shared them with the community. They received funding (from governments, universities, donors) because access to print resources was valuable to society – libraries educated and entertained people while bringing communities together. Americans today confirm that libraries still have a role, with 76% agreeing that libraries serve a community need.3

However, as digital media grows, the traditional operating model of libraries as printed media repositories and lenders is not enough – libraries have to do more. In fact, visit volume is declining (53% of Americans visited a library in 2012 vs. 44% in 2015)3 and library budgets risk cuts as public and private sources are less likely to fund an underutilized service.


(Boston Public Library, from

The Boston Public Library (BPL) faces this challenge but has the advantages of scale and resources compared to smaller libraries, giving the BPL more room to innovate. BPL was the first free large municipal library in the US and now has 24 branches with 3.7 million annual visitors.4 Like most libraries, it relies on public sources for most of its revenue (88%)5 and uses that funding to deliver on its mission/value proposition “to preserve and provide access to historical records…. and to serve the cultural, educational, and informational needs of the people of the City and the Commonwealth”4


(BPL Budget, from

Notably, the mission mentions nothing about print media – lending books is not the only way the library achieves its mission. In a world shifting away from printed books, the BPL is changing its operating model to more digital resource offerings in several ways:

  • Digitizing books, photos, and maps to both preserve records and provide convenient access – in 2016, the library digitized its 100,000th item6.
  • Providing online access to eBooks and audio books by partnering with services such as Overdrive. Similar to a physical library, these limit the number of books a patron borrows at a time and some books are “out of stock” if too many patrons borrow them.
  • Granting in-library access to online databases and journals (previously print-only)

The BPL also seeks to be more than just a resource repository (online or print), shifting its value proposition (and business model) to becoming a community space for today’s world by:

  • Providing technology (desktops, laptops, and tablets) to patrons for use inside the library
  • Holding technology classes, ranging from computer basics to advanced coding
  • Offering online research support to help patrons navigate online resources and databases

These services are offered together with lending books. If printed books continue to decline and digital media is offered broadly outside of libraries, BPL’s role as a community center for information, culture, and education (not just a resource repository) becomes increasingly important. The BPL can do more to succeed here.

It can follow the model of a “technology library” as done in Omaha, Nebraska7. There, the “Do Space” is a building with free access to computers, 3D printers, and laser cutters catering to the community. There is no associated book inventory co-located with a “technology library” and BPL should similarly consider investing in stand-alone smaller “technology libraries” to expand its reach and impact.

Community Information Trust- Do Space

(Do Space, from

When it comes to digitization of existing collections, the BPL has an opportunity to share collections with other municipal libraries and avoid duplication when digitizing the same items. The idea of a “library collection” makes sense for physical libraries, but digital collections should be accessible from home and across different institutions through centralized repositories. BPL can play a role in setting up cross-library collections spanning multiple cities and countries to help patrons worldwide access resources.

Finally, BPL should make a distinction between “books as art” and “books as information”. Books that involve graphics and images are similar to art- an old manuscript or a new $300 book of Apple product photographs7 are best appreciated on paper. As printed books become less important as information sources, some books can continue to be relevant for BPL because patrons can gather at a library and enjoy them as art, similar to art at a public art gallery.

Ultimately, these steps can help drive library use and help BPL make a strong case to public and private sponsors for continued funding.


(“Designed By Apple in California” Book, from

(793 Words)


  1. Print is alive and well – at least for books. (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2016, from
  2. McKinney, K. (2014). Book revenues are up – but without ebooks, they’d be plummeting. Retrieved November 17, 2016, from
  3. Rainie, L. (2016). Libraries and Learning. Retrieved November 17, 2016, from
  4. A Brief History and Description. (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2016, from
  5. BPL – Finances & Budget. (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2016, from
  6. Boston Public Library reaches 100,000 items digitized. (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2016, from
  7. In Omaha, A Library With No Books Brings Technology To All. (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2016, from
  8. Bareham, J. (2016). Apple’s $299 coffee table book is a holy tome for nostalgic fans. Retrieved November 17, 2016, from

Featured cover image from ( by Nathan Pyle


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Student comments on Does a Library Need Books?

  1. Digitization is certainly a challenge for libraries, but it’s also an opportunity. Information sharing is just as important as ever, and in the US we face disturbing inequality in internet access. In New York City, 27% of households do not have broadband internet access. That’s 730,000 people in one city alone. On top of that, 17% don’t even have computer access at home. (1)

    What can libraries do to serve these people? First, they should invest in enough computers to serve the local population. Second, they should increase their operating hours to serve those who work during the day or on weekends. The neighborhood library in my old neighborhood in New York was open just 7-9 hours a day and closed on Sundays. (2) With so many people relying on libraries for internet access, this is unacceptable.

    Before libraries invest in laser cutters, 3D printers, and the like, it’s on them to be the source of information for the local community — and in today’s day and age, that means providing internet access for all.


  2. Alex, I agree with your article wholeheartedly, but I would like to make one additional point. Analyzing this topic with a LEAD lens, I cannot understate how important organizational leadership will be in striving for the changes you outlined in your article. Public libraries are a crucial public good, and their digitization is something that society stands to benefit from greatly. However, the individuals who lead these organizations are not necessarily prepared to lead this transformational change. As most infamously exampled by James Billington, the recently departed ex-chief of the Library of Congress who never fully embraced the power of digital technology in the public library space and whose meager attempts at digital transformation failed miserably, this change process requires bold leadership (1). The Library leaders of today spent their professional careers deeply immersed in the critical tasks and associated culture of physical print libraries, and many of them are hesitant to fully embrace the digitization of libraries. Going forward, the public institutions which nominate and confirm the leadership of public libraries must consider the candidates’ curiosity and willingness to change as part of their evaluation. Candidates from other industries should even be considered, if necessary, to lead the libraries fulfilling this crucial public good.


  3. Alex, I agree that libraries need to adapt to stay relevant. However, print books are not dead! Pew Research conducted in 2016 shows that of the Americans who read a book within the last 12 months, 38% read print only, 28% read both digital and print, and only 6% read digital only. Digital only readers represented 8% of those with annual incomes of over $75,000 compared to only 3% of Americans with incomes of $30,000 of less(1). I agree with AbMcK that libraries represent accessibility of information. So I would caution against any radical change with more digital content than print.
    Educationally, I would also argue that maintaining an adequate print database benefits learning. With tablets, computers, and mobile phone usage, young readers are likely to be more distracted and less likely to lose themselves in a great book!!


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