creative destruction libraries

A Big Problem for Libraries

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Feb 18, 2014    •    981 Views

Several weeks ago, I had the huge pleasure of attending the final hour of the marathon reading of Moby Dick at the Nantucket Public Library. The stacks that surrounded me were filled with books and almost everyone had a copy of Moby Dick open to the final chapter.


Called the Atheneum, the Nantucket Public Library looks just like a Greek temple. Built almost 170 years ago, it is a palatial home for more than 30,000 books and a great place for reading and research.

I wonder, though, if Joseph Schumpeter’s creative destruction should come to mind when we think about libraries.

Libraries are having difficulties with publishers. Worried about the re-readability of e-books, publishers are experimenting with prohibitively high pricing models. Ohio’s Cuyahoga County Library had to pay $85 for each e-book copy of Dan Brown’s Inferno. The result? Libraries buy fewer copies and borrowers have a longer wait.

Library staffs are also dealing with rapidly changing, varied, and occasionally unwieldy e-book technology that is tough for them to keep up with. And, even when the library staff has digital expertise, the problem of teaching library patrons how to access resources consumes mammoth time. Add to that the proliferation of downloadable media like music, movies and comic books and you have a fundamental structural change facing the library world.

One Seattle librarian summarized it all by says that the book-borrowing experience has profoundly changed.

As the process through which “innovations cause old …technologies, skills and equipment to become obsolete,” that profound change sounds just like Schumpeter’s creative destruction. 

And if creative destruction is unfolding, how then to preserve libraries’ positive externalities? Defined as a benefit from a transaction enjoyed by an unrelated third party, the positive externalities from libraries involve the ripple of human capital development that they start and perpetuate.

Sources and Resources: Firsthand, from the Atheneum website, and from this book by Robert Gambee, I found a wealth of facts on the library.I do recommend taking a look at the slide show that takes you to the first Nantucket library in 1834, the catastrophic Nantucket fire of 1846 and even Frederick Douglass’s visits there. H/T to our Kent Place librarian, John Walz for his insight and this article from Publishers Weekly. Finally, for more about Joseph Schumpeter and creative destruction, econlib is always a good source.

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