What would you guess is the cost of of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie revised edition in hardcover? Now, what would you guess is the cost for a library to make that exact same book available on its shelf? Do you think the library pays more or less than you, an individual consumer? I never had a clear idea on the answer to this question until I saw the following break down provided by my boss.*
As you can see from these numbers, libraries do get a discount off the list price of books. Increasingly, however, so do consumers thanks to the buying powers of giant retailers like Amazon and Walmart. Moreover, any discounts libraries get are more than swamped by what’s termed the “cost to acquire”. This is the cost that libraries pay to get a book on its shelf, ready for use by the public. It includes everything from sorting the book as it comes into the mail room, having a selector personally examine the book to decide whether to acquire it or send it back, getting the book’s invoice through acquisitions workflows so it’s paid for, creating a catalog record for the book, stamping the book as library’s property, inserting a barcode, putting on a label, and shelving the books in its proper place**. Of course, for a standard book like Little House on the Prairie, some of these steps would either cost very little (e.g. cataloging) or can be skipped altogether (selector’s personal examination). However, not all of a library’s materials are standard materials, so this $8.00 figure reflects the average processing cost for a library.
$8.00 is really quite a substantial sum to pay on top of the cost of the book itself. Libraries have sought to control this cost by getting more of their materials “shelf-ready” from vendors — that is, they pay vendors a sum, presumably less than $8.00/unit, so that when the book comes through the door, it is, in theory, ready to go on the shelf immediately. This means the book comes with a catalog record already prepared, any library proprietary information already attached, and whatever else is needed. Nonetheless, the “cost to acquire” is still not zero for these shelf-ready books as the libraries still have to pay the vendors for performing these functions. Furthermore, shelf-ready books are only an option for standard works like commercially published books. More obscure materials like foreign language books, local publications, ephemera, older materials, the libraries still have to handle themselves at nontrivial expense.
In short, books cost money, more money than the list prices suggest. On the other hand, the cost per circulation, at least for a heavily used book like The Little House on the Prairie, is quite low. Children’s books, however, are easily the most high turnover books in a library. I would guess that most other types of books do not see a 100+ circulation during their lifetime. Of course, this is not to suggest that libraries should only collect children’s books, Danielle Steele novels, test prep guides, or other heavy-use materials. Cost of acquisition must be balanced against benefit from use. Assessing the benefits derived from library books, however, is notoriously difficult (much more than costs) and accordingly the stuff for dissertations.
(**A person buying a book for his own use would too pay some of these “costs to acquire” as he would want to examine, organize, and perhaps make a record of his collection. However, he would presumably do the tasks himself and so pay in time rather than out-of-pocket. Also, for a lot of book owners, these are pleasurable activities.)