Fit to Print: What to Do with Printed Books?

By Tom Peters | Tom Peters Head Shot

Today's announcement of yet another massive digitization project for printed books, the Open Content Alliance involving Yahoo!, the Internet Archive, the University of California, the University of Toronto, U.K. and European Archives, and others, coupled with last week's announcement of an initial preview of the used book market by the Book Industry Study Group, has me wondering: If libraries as a group exhibit markedly accelerated deaccession activities for their printed materials in the next few years (that's a big unknown if), what are they going to do with all those surplus printed copies?

Local retention of printed books may be an option for many libraries, but eventually space constraints and opportunities for more effective use of shelf-space for collections with declining usage (another big if!) will exhaust the local storage option.

Shared-storage facilities could help ensure that at least one printed master would be available to the collaborative or consortium, but even reduping at the point of intake could create quite a surplus of print copies.

Of course, landfills and recycling centers are options, but both chafe against our professional values, and they could cause a crisis of confidence among the constituencies libraries serve, not to mention the expense of "just throwing" books away.

Many libraries now have book sales for surplus copies and donated items beyond the scope of their collections, but this means of redistributing printed material tends to be expensive, inefficient, and small potatoes in the face of this challenge.

Could technology possibly help with what may become a massive problem of surplus printed library books? According to the BISG study, the future of selling pre-owned print books is online. Companies such as Indaba Systems offer systems for libraries and other organizations to sell their surplus print materials online through multiple channels, such as Amazon, Abebooks, alibris, etc. (In case you're wondering, according to Indaba's Web site the word "indaba" is a Zulu word meaning, "gathering to do business.")

If surplus printed library books become a significant problem, online sales, trade, and donation systems could help libraries continue to pursue Ranganathan's Five Laws, especially the third one: Every book its reader.