Many strong calls to support local bookstores have gone out in the world over the last several years, but where’s the love for local libraries? What if you don’t have the means to spend a substantial amount of money on books? If you have to pick between one or the other, what should you choose? People seem to think of buying books in the same way they think about buying a car—why use the public option when you can go to a dealership and get your own? I’m not so sure that mindset makes sense. Although one place might seem like the obvious choice, the reality is not so simple. Let’s take a look at what each place offers and see how they stack up.
Taxpaying residents can usually apply for membership of a city’s public library free of charge. Non-residents usually pay an annual fee of $30–50, about the same price as two or three hardcover books. The other typical requirement is identification that proves US residency, which unfortunately means that undocumented members of the community can be excluded from services. On the bright side, even those ID and payment requirements don’t completely bar use of the library. One of the major pluses of libraries is that you don’t have to pay to stay. If you have time to spend at the library, you can always pick up books and come back to them later. Although not having a membership may limit your use of the library, there are plenty of other resources available at no cost to you.
It’s important to keep in mind the distinct purposes and environments of bookstores and libraries. Libraries give you access to resources that you’re looking for—bookstores exist to sell you what you want. Getting a library card means something very different from signing up for a store rewards program. Membership for discounts at most brick-and-mortar bookstores cost an average of $25 per year (Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million) to shave off costs from your purchases via coupons, email offers, free shipping, and other discounts. Although the membership fee is lower than that of most libraries, you’ll still be spending money with every purchase, even with discounts. Savings may not always be relevant to your interests either, and you’ll have to put effort into scoring membership deals. Still, rewards programs are a great way to sweeten the deal when you’re making a purchase.
If you’re looking for the hottest bestsellers and coolest swag, you’d best go to a bookstore. Standard merchandise has expanded way beyond books in recent years as well. Most stores now offer a selection of clothes, office supplies, art supplies, gifts, technology, music, knick-knacks, and DVDs. Libraries, on the other hand, have a limited collection of materials for sharing. Profit-minded publishers fight with libraries to restrict their access rights, but they’re more than happy to send bookstores plenty of copies for sale. You usually won’t have to compete over one copy of a book, which may often be the case in a library. Bookstores also might have a café section, whereas most libraries may just have vending machines. Vendors will usually have the latest and greatest material goods, but that’s to be expected. When it comes to academic, information, and real-world resources, libraries still come out on top.
Libraries offer so much more than just books and stuff: they provide a plethora of public services for the community at large. For groups, libraries have been creating spaces for events such as workshops and town hall meetings. Whether story time for youngsters or workshops on 3D printing, there are plenty of resources for personal growth. For individuals, there are computer terminals and internet connectivity available, which in turn provides access to employment, health, and legal resources, just to name a few. For those who have nowhere else to go, a library can mean safe shelter. Unlike bookstores, there is no expectation that you’ll be paying for something because you’re there. The concept of loitering—the criminalization of taking up space without spending money—doesn’t apply within library walls. Until closing time, there’s a place for you to take care of business, learn something new, join in group activities, or just rest. And we must not forget that libraries always have a friendly face ready to help.
The library’s most key resource is the librarian: an information expert whose job is to help you sift through collections in order to reach your specific goals. Maybe you just need to know where in the library a certain genre can be found, or maybe you need a comprehensive analysis of the American logging industry in the 1950s—librarians will have you covered in either case. Connections to databases, journals, and other libraries’ collections mean that most likely they have what you’re looking for.
In the end, your best option is defined by your personal situation. Do you have cash to blow, or just enough for a library card? Do you have the freedom to borrow and return books on a revolving basis? Are you already paying a zillion dollars in tuition, which includes access to your school’s library? Do you need a quiet place to work, and can you afford to pay to stay? Are you looking for information or material goods?
Libraries will have your back when your wallet is empty but your brain is full of questions. Stores are there for when you have money to spend on something special that you want to keep for yourself. If you want to read more on why libraries are not, in fact, dying, while some bookseller chains are, there’s plenty of info to find online, whether you buy a coffee to cover your Wi-Fi use, or you use a complimentary library computer. Please do try to support both your local library and your local booksellers—that’ll mean the best of both worlds.