Amazon Learns From Libraries, Again

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We hear a lot of talk about libraries borrowing from the business world: Internet cafés, self checkout stations, books shelved at the front of the shelf for easy access (instead of the back to protect them from dust), people are even free to walk among the books without an escort. We do not say much about the other side of the street, but there is plenty of action there too.

In 1994 Jeff Bezos had an idea. He created a library OPAC (Online Public Access Catalog) that replaced the hold/reserve button with a buy button. This repurposing of the library business model launched a corporate empire. 24 years later Mr. Bezos is at it again. Over the last several years libraries have developed phone apps that allow patrons to self-check their borrowed books as they find them on the shelves. We also have RFID door gates that check carried books out to the card holder as the patron walks out (just in case they forget). On January 22 Amazon opened its Amazon Go grocery store to the public, where customers use these library technologies to buy instead of borrow.

Amazon is not unique. Consider how many bookstores provide storytimes and other educational events for children. The two sides of the street do have some fundamental differences, though. When a business loses a book, it is a write-off; when a library loses a book, our cultural heritage is a little less preserved. This difference, between trading culture and preserving access to culture, means that neither side can ever replace the other. People get spooked from time to time and decry that “everyone will go the the store for…” or “nobody will buy … from us,” but both fears are unfounded. There will always be people who prefer to own just as there will always be people who cannot afford. Losing a customer who will not pay is no loss at all. Similarly, a person who owns their own access is not deprived of access. Businesses and libraries are at their best when they learn from each other to fulfill their different yet compatible missions.