January 20, 2022

Opinion: “Overdue: Throwing the Book at Libraries”

UPDATE August 4: Canadian Federation of Library Associations Issues Response to Globe and Mail Op-Ed

UDPATE July 27: Statement From Canadian Urban Library Association

An op/ed published by The Globe and Mail (Canada) that includes statistics about Canadian and U.S. public libraries.

About the Author:

“Kenneth Whyte is the publisher of Sutherland House Books and the author of the weekly SHuSH newsletter. He is a former editor-in-chief of Maclean’s and the former founding editor of the National Post. His books include Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times.”

From The Globe and Mail:

It may seem strange to think of booksellers and libraries as competitors. Most booksellers I know don’t. Ask them to name their competition and they’ll point to Amazon and Indigo, not the public library. There’s a logic to that: They’re booksellers, and libraries don’t sell books.

That, however, is a fatally narrow lens through which to view the book marketplace. Booksellers are in competition with libraries whether they want to admit it or not. Just ask the libraries.


The numbers are worse in Canada [vs. the U.S.]. Ontario and B.C. public libraries, serving half of Canada’s population, circulated 166 million items in 2018 (books, DVDs, musical instruments and, swear to God, power tools). If we double that to account for all of Canada, and if three-quarters of the circulated items were books, we’re looking at 224.1 million books borrowed by Canadians in a given year. There were 54 million books sold in Canada in 2018. That means that for every book sold, roughly 4½ are borrowed at no cost to the reader, which means Canadians are saving themselves about $400-million a year by visiting their libraries.

Of course, the library does pay for the one copy of a book that it lends out repeatedly – on average, each book gets borrowed about eight times a year. The life of the average library book is far longer than one year, but if we use that simple benchmark and say one in eight of the 224.1 million books borrowed every year is actually paid for, that brings the total number of books borrowed at no charge to just under 200 million, so we’re still left with roughly four books borrowed for every one bought in Canada. Libraries as a source of book sales are way overrated: One estimate says they account for 1.3 per cent of the trade market.


The dirty secret of public libraries is that their stock-in-trade is neither education nor edification. It’s entertainment. The top three reasons people patronize libraries, according to a massive Booknet survey, are to “relax,” for “enjoyment” and “for entertainment.” That is why the TPL system has 90 copies of Fifty Shades of Grey and six copies of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.


Pushing bestsellers in competition with book retailers, to the detriment of publishers and authors, has become an addiction for librarians who, again, rely on steady or growing patronage statistics to justify their funding requests.

It has to stop.

Read the  Complete Opinion (approx. 2900 words)

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.