Libraries and Amazon

Libraries and Amazon. Not exactly two words that are spoken in the same sentence without being to the detriment to the latter. Especially when the latter is also one of the largest book retailers in the world with a popular ereader that is heavy on the DRM and (most notably) currently incompatible for library ebook vendors. 

But libraries working as Amazon Associates?

By the time I got home today, the Butler Public Library had removed the banner on their home screen announcing their partnership with Amazon (hence, no screenshot). You can still see the text indicating that if people click on the link and buy things from Amazon that the library can receive up to 15% of the price. At face value, that doesn’t sound like a bad deal to me. It’s a way to generate some additional funding without additional work by library staff and gives library supporters a way to give to the library as part of any online shopping they do with Amazon.

(It’s also not the only case of this type of partnership; this other example being from about four years ago now.) 

Even as I typed the words of the last two sentences of the preceding paragraph, I can hear the chaffing of a thousand hands wringing from librarians coast-to-coast. Oh, we can’t get involved with a retail operation. That wouldn’t be right for the image of the library to be seen as endorsing one merchant. This kind of association pulls us away from our mission of information and education to that of retail and endorsement. We can’t possibly assist a corporation that could be the demise of libraries. And we certainly cannot partner with a company that is stodgy regarding copyright and takes a dim view of content.

Ok, that last sentence is one to which I would concede the point.  But I would press on and say that there are other points to consider. First, this type of arrangement places libraries in a unique ‘try before you buy’ position that doesn’t exist anywhere else. You liked the book or movie you borrowed? You can buy it here. Don’t want to miss an issue of the newspaper? Try a trial home subscription and see if you want to subscribe. Same thing for magazines. It creates a dynamic in which you can borrow it from one place (the library) or buy it from another (Amazon). And if you decide you were going to buy it anyway, why not do it through the library and give them a piece of the sale? There is an upside to positioning the library in line with Amazon.

Second, it knocks down the notion that Amazon and libraries are in competition or at odds with one another. Only if you squint and declare that both are involved in handling the same sort of materials could they actually be perceived as competing institutions. Amazon is a retailer, trying to put as many products into the hands of consumers as humanly possible. They sell stuff. They do not answer people on how to find information unless that information is how to buy more stuff. They will not help you with your resume (unless you want to buy a resume book), they will not help you learn how to use a computer (unless you want to buy a computer book), and they will not tell you where the bathroom is (maybe if you went to one of their centers, but probably not). The library is a public institution with a mission of literacy, education, and information. The library’s commodity is service in this goal. It won’t sell you the stuff within its walls (unless it happens to be on the book sale), but it can tell you where to find it. We will help you with your resume, how to use a computer, and, yes, where the bathroom is. Libraries and Amazon are simply not in the same business; the goals and aims of the organizations do not collide. There is no conflict of interest or intent.

Third, if you still have a problem with Amazon, you can take that kind of arrangement and work out a deal with local businesses. Imagine if a patron took their checkout receipt to the store and purchased the item on it; in return, the store gives a portion of the sale to the library. It recreates the same arrangement with Amazon and keeps the sale within the local economy. For whatever the library offers, there can be a benefit offered through a mutually beneficial arrangement with a similar business or service. The limitations are only the ones you put in place. 

And lastly, in a financial environment that could simply be described as ‘arid’, the capability of libraries to raise money from an assortment of sources is imperative. The idea that one source of income is somehow less desirable than others due to the point of origin (retail) is a bit absurd considering how readily libraries will compete for prizes offered by vendors. If you have any remaining doubts on this particular point, open up any state or national library conference program and take note of corporate sponsorships of events, awards, or even ice cream giveaways. Librarians and libraries don’t have a problem taking money from these sources nor should they. When one is trying to keep the doors open, any income is still income. And while some may think that it is better to close than to sell out, I doubt the surrounding community would feel the same way.

Certainly, it’s a touchy subject for a library to partner with a corporation such as Amazon in that capacity. However, in my estimation, the pros outweigh the cons. It generates revenue for the library, it positions the library to offer a ways for patrons to purchase items as well as donate the library, and it can be modified to work for local businesses. Not every business that is involved with the same materials is a competition for libraries; in fact, it behooves libraries to find more of these types of partnerships in order to survive and thrive. There are business and corporate partners who have an eye towards doing good things for communities. All it takes is a little outreach on the part of the library to make it happen.

So, go on. Click on that link without guilt. It’s going to a good cause.

20 thoughts on “Libraries and Amazon

  1. Interesting concept. I don’t think the “try before you buy” would work out that well. It doesn’t seem to be working for Barnes & Noble or Borders which has a “try before you buy” and “buy” concept under one roof. That might not be a fair or even accurate comparison, but I think most people would split off and be either the “borrowers” or the “buyers.”

    I find something off about this partnership but can’t put my finger on it. I look forward to reading other people’s comments. Maybe my biggest problem is ego. We’re adhering to them rather than convincing them to come to us.

    • As to your last point, that’s like saying you’re not going to the dance because you didn’t get asked. Sometimes you have to get dressed and go.

      ‘Try before you buy’ may not work for everyone, but giving people an alternative to own what they like, an outlet to do, and a benefit to the library is a sensible alternative in my mind. Why not capitalize on this interaction to the benefit of the library?

  2. I think it’s important to remember that Amazon (like libraries) is not just about books. I bought my kids many toys, games and books from Amazon for Christmas and my local library got a kickback. Win and win.

  3. Coming from a school environment, this sort of fundraising seems status quo.
    We call them “online book fairs” ;).

    We’ve done partnerships with bookstores locally too, where for a week, partial proceeds from all purchases go towards the libraries.

    Randall’s Grocery store does the same thing for schools, as does Target.

    So I think it’s not out of the realm for public institutions to partner with businesses for financial fundraising.

    Perhaps terminology might help–thinking of it more like a “book fair” fundraiser perhaps would put it in context for patrons?

    I think of it like Miracle on 34th street…Macy’s helping Gimbles, and no one cares where the book comes from as long as people are reading?

    • Oh, very nice! Yeah, what you call it is important to get people in the mindset for the spending. “Oh, I can buy [X] and have it benefit the library? Sweet!”

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  5. If, as in individual, you search OCLC Worldcat and do not find what you want, or don’t find a library that will lend it to you, or get bored looking at lists of libraries, the last option is a link to Amazon. OCLC then gets some benefit from purchases. Apparently, there are a significant number of purchases made in this way. And, consumers being consumers, they buy everything from books to refrigerators (for which OCLC does not get a cut). This information was reported to the now defunct OCLC Members Council.
    So, a person does not have to search their local library at all! They can search Worldcat (and many do) and jump right out to Amazon. I do want people to read – really I do – but something about this path troubles me.

  6. We’re actually wanting to use that exact model. And actually, one of our savvy patrons mentioned it to us. He said he loves checking out our stuff … but he wants these types of choices:

    - check it out now
    - download the ebook
    - buy it on Amazon

    His reasoning was this: our new popular stuff has like a 100 person waiting list – he doesn’t want to wait, and would definitely buy the book anyway – why not make it handy for the customer to buy the book? He loves the idea of the library getting some of that money for his purchase.

    • That sounds pretty awesome, David! I look forward to seeing how that would work out. Statistics are king in this conversation, methinks.

  7. I see no problems getting involved. We are already involved with corporate vendors…it’d just be another corporate vendor, giving us money, instead.

  8. Try before you buy may work for large systems with branches unifying under a single fundraising vehicle. I would pass from a standalone municipal library perspective.

    A library user and I were discussing the future of “the library” in light of recent new online reading device popularity. “Hey, your library is a boutique library. It has that feel, you know.” He wasn’t sharing more on the topic and I didn’t see the need for him to continue. Just think about it, would you pair http://www.etsy.com/ with Amazon?

    • To me, it sounds more like a setting or environment that Amazon cannot create: a destination in which people can interact with. That’s my take on your patron’s observation. I think it is one of the major advantages that the public library has over, well, any online retailer.

      Would I pair etsy with Amazon? Sure, why not? They have an excellent platform for moving product. Is it the same as etsy? No, but I wouldn’t see an issue with expanding the opportunities for merchants to sell their wares. Hmm. I’d have to think on this one. I might have a better answer than that one.

  9. I would assert that at least half the reason people jumped on Butler yesterday had less to do with the fact of the Amazon Affiliates link than the sheer prominence of it on the library’s home page: It jumped out at you as though it was the most important thing the library offered. This is, after all, a home page that doesn’t even include a catalog search–and the type for the Amazon banner was bolder than for the library’s own services.

    • I hadn’t seen the other reactions, but I did think that it was a bit big in comparison to other items on the page. Granted, this is a money making venture so some prominence would be in order, in my opinion.

  10. As a patron, one of the things I like about the library is that it is a non-commercial space. No one is trying to sell me anything at the library or the library website, with the possible exception of some used books at the friends’ sale shelves.

    I think public libraries should think long and hard before messing with that non-commercial atmosphere.

    • I disagree with you to a certain extent, Steve. If you were to come to my library, I’d be trying to do a certain amount of selling. Databases and ebooks are commodities that the library buys that it wants to have its patrons use. They are provided by outside vendors. That databse and those ebooks don’t have our name on them; they have either Gale or EBSCO or Overdrive on them. In essence, I am diverting you to a corporation that we (the library) do business with.

      I’d argue it’s the same for you at the academic level where you try to ‘sell’ database use to students and faculty.

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    • As soon as B&N and IndieBound have associate programs, I’m sure libraries will be looking to make the most out of their associations with corporations. Do either of those companies have something like that?

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