Prospects for Jewish Libraries and Jewish Bookstores
Times are tough all around. Libraries and Booksellers are really catching it. It would be nice to think that on the other side of this economic meltdown things would get good again and go back to the way they were in some halcyon time. But don’t count on it.
We all are already familiar with the many changes in our daily lives brought upon us by new technologies. Electronic books have arrived and we are about to experience an existential challenge to our professions and institutions. Now is the time for us to examine what we are doing so that we can explain and defend the value and importance to the larger Jewish community of our institutions to our users, patrons and customers. If we don’t frame the debate early I am afraid we won’t have a second chance.
The electronic book was already on the minds of the technorati when I began in the book trade in the late 1980s. The prognosis for my survival was never more than five years. However, the grail of the e-books was elusive. Unanticipated problems continually arose. Fifteen years passed before Sony was able to bring to market the first really satisfactory e-reader. Even then, they stumbled on content, delivery and business model. The device was clumsy. Books were expensive and selection was limited. Downloading was not easy.
In the fall of 2007 Amazon.com introduced the first version of the Kindle e-reader. It used a recent version of electronic paper but otherwise was not a significant technological innovation. Amazon’s real innovation was to use the bully-pulpit of their web-site as a virtual billboard for both the Kindle and for the content that could be bought from Amazon to use on it.
The business plan was the breakthrough. The plan was to get into the field early, dominate the field, and keep the majority of the gross income and certainly the majority of the profits. As always in capitalism the thing was being done because it could be and because it addressed problems in Amazon’s existing business model. The first problem was the existence of competitors. By marketing a device that could only receive contact from the seller of the device and selling content that would only work on the device, users were subscribing to an absolute monopoly. From a practical point of view, selling tangible things is a nuisance compared to selling virtual things. By setting retail prices and the discount schedule in a closed market Amazon would turn publishers into share-croppers. Although it is unlikely that Amazon will be able to maintain an absolute monopoly, they will be satisfied if they can dominate the e-book market in the way that Apple dominate the online music market.
As of July ’09 Amazon has sold about 1 million Kindles. That is about 60 percent of the total market for e-readers. (Roughly 1.7 million units.) Many people have yet to see one of these devices in real life. Although Oprah declared the Kindle one of her “favorite things,” we are still in the early adopter phase. In a study recently published by Forrester Research and written by Sarah Potman Epps, Ms. Epps projects that the adoption of the of e-readers will follow the standard progression for the spread of successful technologies. As additional features are added (such as color, improved graphics, faster data transfer and additional content and types of content) sales will increase causing a fall in price which will cause an increase in sales. Ms. Epps projects that 13-15 million units will have sold by 2011/12. That usership will be comprised of the most avid readers, older reader and students.
As the devices become more common access to them will become a normal societal expectation. Extrapolating beyond Ms. Epps, I expect a confluence between smart phones and e-readers. As e-reader use becomes a day-to-day thing smart phones will support direct downloading of e-books and e-reading. There are already early i-phone apps that address these issues. What this means is that e-reading will be available not just to the users of just dedicated devices but to just about everyone.
In this world, what value will remain in our printed books and the places that we keep them to be consulted, loaned and sold. Stewart Brand has said, “Information wants to be free.” This freedom is the freedom from cost to users, freedom from context, and freedom from authorial control. What is unacknowledged in his argument is that there is a financial cost to the distribution of free information and there are social and moral costs to society due to the loss of context and authorial control. The very transmigration of book knowledge into the virtual commodity of information has a cost in loss of simple comprehension.
To look forward we need to look back at what we have been. Until the 1920’s and in large part until the 1950s Jewish libraries were of two types. The large Reform synagogues like Congregation Emanu-El of New York and Congregation Shearith Israel in San Francisco began Jewish book collections in the nineteenth century. I speculate that this was initiated by the co-evolution of the Reform movement with its agenda of adding “dignity” to Jewish practice and the Wissenschafts des Judentums movement. Simultaneously, the various Jewish seminaries and Jewish teachers colleges came into existence and with them the libraries that supported their pedagogic purposes.
Jewish bookselling in America before the 1880s was a limited concern centered around the author/editor/publishers Isaac Leeser and Isaac Mayer Wise. In the 1880s the waves of immigration created the critical mass needed for a real Jewish book market. Jewish bookstores opened in New York, Boston, Philadelphia (probably also Montreal and Toronto) and eventually across the US and Canada. Initially these were Seforim stores, but author’s, such as Alexander Harkavy, saw a need to provide materials in Yiddish to help the new immigrants to succeed in their new homeland. Over the next fifty years these stores became the places where the new Yiddish literature and sheet music and the new American rabbinica was sold. Suburbanization ended the era leaving behind only a few remnants, such as the Israel Book Shop in Boston and J. Levine in New York.
In her book, “Wonders of America,” Jenna Weissman Joselit describes the type of Jewish bookstore that thrived in the suburbs, the synagogue gift shop. “Sisterhood gift shops, numbering in the hundreds by the mid-1950s, rose to the challenge by carrying an array of handsome, widely priced goods. Typically, these included wrapping paper and napkins with a Jewish motif, dreidels, puzzles, Kiddush cups, candlesticks, mezuzahs, challah covers and matzoh covers, traditional and ornate yarmulkes, tallesim, and tefillin, and new fangled items like a ‘yahrzeit bulb and stand.” Figurines, etchings, books and ‘Palestinian things’ also crowded the shelves. Surveying this abundance, one gift shop customer proudly observed, ‘We have better facilities to work with than out mothers had.’” (p. 160).
Other than Torahs and Tanakhs, non-English books were not part of this business model. English language book publishing was slow to evolve. Bloch and the Jewish Publication Society began in the nineteenth century. The synagogue gift shop created the market that allowed English language Jewish book publishing to mature. New Jewish publishers started up (some grew out of bookstores, ie. Feldheim) and mainstream publishers began to pursue the Jewish market. The majority of the Jewish bookstores that exist today are private extensions of the synagogue gift shop model.
Just as the Synagogue gift shop was a project of the Synagogue Sisterhoods so too was the kind of Synagogue library that became common in both Reform and Conservative synagogues in this period. They both served the vision of the Synagogue-Center of Mordecai Kaplan. In a era when women’s opportunities in the Synagogue was limited to religious school, library and gift shop. Leader ship was allowed to women only in the shop and library. That made the opportunity to work in those environments attractive.
In the post-war years academic Jewish studies expanded beyond the Jewish seminaries and teacher’s colleges to the secular academic environment. Quotas disappeared and Jewish institutions found themselves competing with secular institutions for scholars and books.
Joselit cites the slogan, “’Educate Through the Gift Shop.’” (p. 161). In the post-war years, Joselit repeatedly points out, interest in Jewish tradition and traditional practice underwent a renewal. Synagogue gift shops and libraries were vital informal resources for education in this era. Both were sites with low social barriers to entry that served the novice and knowledgeable alike. Between that time and now American Jewry and it’s need for both institutions have changed. The tendency towards synagogue disaffiliation that began in the late 1960s has made library and gift shop even more important access points. As more opportunities have opened up for women in the work force, Cantorate, Rabbinate and Synagogue lay leadership it has gotten harder to staff the library and gift shop.
So, should we continue or not? It may be that in the majority culture around us that the consequences of “free information” and virtual books can be tolerated. But we are a minority culture and we need places where our messages are not overwhelmed by the technology or by people with interests other than our own. Jewish bookstores and libraries offer physical places where the physical objects that give tangible substance to who we are as a people are best understood.
We know what we do. What problems arise in our absence? In April of this year Amazon.com removed the Gay and Lesbian subject matter titles from its sales rankings. The books disappeared from some title searching, best-seller lists and other specialized search lists. Anti-Gay books were about all that came up when searches for Gay and Lesbian materials were searched for. In “Holt Uncensored” for May 18th, Pat Holt quotes and Ashley D of Amazon Member Services as saying, “we exclude ‘adult’ material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists.” A twitter based furor caused enough noise that within a few days the titles mysteriously re-appeared.
Further on in the May 18th post Holt reminds us of a legal case between Amazon.com and the Amazon Bookstore. “In the case the co-owners of Amazon Bookstore, an independent feminist bookseller founded in 1970 (i.e., decades before Amazon.com came along), asserted that their brick-and-mortar store had store had been losing money in the ‘80s and ’90 because the online book retailer in Seattle had taken the Amazon name. Indeed, vendors, customers, reporters and online readers so often confused Amazon.com with Amazon Bookstore that the co-owners in Minneapolis spent as much time resolving mistakes as they did running their store. Attempts to find a peaceful solution through talks with Amazon.com were rebuffed, so the co-owners sued, citing trademark infringement.” Amazon.com’s defense bizarrely consisted of an attempt to identify the owners and managers as lesbians. It is unclear why Amazon pursued this ultimately losing strategy. I don’t expect Amazon to treat Jews and Jewish books in the same way. The point is that they could. To view this from the side of librarianship, consider what books are available on Tibet on the Chinese version of Google Books.
I referred to an existential crisis that both Jewish bookstores and libraries faced. This is a crisis of perception. The momentum of the popular culture for new technologies that exclude us will lead to a loss in sales and a loss of financial support. For Synagogue libraries this may mean the elimination or diminution of library staff.
Libraries and booksellers don’t need to work together to overcome this trend, but because they have similar goals and similar problems they are natural allies.
I created a short survey for Jewish librarians about their relationships with the local Jewish bookstores. The reason why I stressed local in the survey is that I wanted to inquire about the library’s relationship the specific potential partner that they had available. (One of my regrettable findings was that for many Jewish librarians there was no such potential partner available.) I received roughly twenty responses from librarians at Synagogue libraries, school libraries, community libraries and some academic libraries.
The primary reasons that I found for tepid relationships was the sometimes limited stock of the booksellers and the bookseller’s inability to compete with a variety of other sources on price. Having said as much as I have said about Amazon, Amazon did not come up as a source nearly as often as I expected. Among those who did cite Amazon it tended to be a source of choice among those who bought most heavily on the basis of price alone. Others found better prices through a company that organized Jewish book fairs, through the use of the bargains offered at AJL conferences and through other used book sourcing cites on the internet. In general there was a sense that the effort to find best price was a strongly felt responsibility. There also appeared to be few signs that most stores actively sought the business of libraries and no signs that they were making efforts to understand the needs of libraries. On the plus side, the librarians who did physically visit the bookstores were sometimes able to find items that were self-published or otherwise outside of the mainstream of Jewish publishing.
Most of the responses indicated moderate to sharp cut-backs in library book funds. All library types were similar in this regard.
Bookstores have also cut staff and hours, making them less accessible. Because I feel that the booksellers have done less to adjust to the needs of librarians than the reverse I will address my advice in their directions first.
Jewish booksellers need to take their selling efforts on the internet seriously. They need to use Google optimization on their websites. They have lost part of their income to the internet and their need to go to the internet to take that income back. The best of these store’s websites are quite limited. While their websites don’t need to sell every Jewish book they do need to have a more comprehensive feel to them. The titles that they promote heavily on their sites and in their shops need to be the items that are harder to purchase through Amazon and elsewhere online: books from publishers like Ktav, Artscroll, Feldheim and Israeli publishers. Their stock needs to go light on the mainstream publishers Jewish interest titles.
These stores need to organize as a group to negotiate better discounts from the Jewish publishers and from the University presses that publish Jewish interest materials but generally only offer short discounts. They need to stock catalogs from Jewish museums, archives and institutions. They need to actively seek out remainders and hurts in order to undercut the prices of Amazon and the chain stores. Their shelves cannot look like the shelves in Borders and Barnes and Noble. Where there is similarity the Jewish bookstores need to compete on price.
Time is always tight, but booksellers need to ask librarians what they need and what terms of sale are most helpful to them. Booksellers need to use blogs and email and paper mailing lists on a regular basis to update librarians on new arrivals and on recent trends in their customer’s preferences.
Bookstores need to set up affiliate buying programs with the local Jewish institutions and Synagogues and take over the places on their websites that carry links that take customers now to Amazon and other non-Jewish sites. Bookstores need to set up the facilities for Jewish institutions and Synagogues to post wish-lists so that their members and supporters can make direct donations of precisely the books that are needed.
None of this is free of time or financial costs, but the expenditures will be good ones.
Libraries need to find new sources of income that are independent of the overall budgeting processes of their Synagogues and institutions. They need to draw attention to their efforts through electronic and non-electronic means.
Above, from the bookselling side, I mentioned the idea of wish-list registries. Libraries should use these actively and use their websites to link to them. Synagogue libraries should work with pre-schools and religious schools on birthday donations programs. A similar approach could even be applied to adult books if you have a successful adult ed or senior ed program. School libraries and academic libraries could even adapt these programs and use them as a source of positive public relations. Donation book plates should be used to give donors a sense of buy in.
When making purchases all effort should be made to consolidate library and school orders at Synagogues. This motivates booksellers to work with libraries. Booksellers who cannot afford to discount single items can usually discount bulk orders.
With the aid of volunteers libraries should solicit widely for book donations, donations of all sorts of books. The non-Judaica and the duplicate Judaica donated can be sold at a library book sale. In order to make a more high-profile event multiple Synagogues and institutions can work together as a group and split profits. Joint events would probably get more and better publicity for the community of libraries and the idea of libraries.
In a recent email to HaSafran Helen Chorister of Congregation Tiferet Israel discussed a library Shabbat at her Synagogue which consisted of participation in the services, a special guest speaker and public discussion of the library. Chorister was able to raise the profile of her library.
The more help libraries can get from volunteers the better off they will be. A good volunteer effort shows that there is support for the library as well as shifting some burdens off of the shoulders of the librarian.
Librarians should try to see their libraries more like booksellers see their stores. They should visit bookstores and compare appearances. People say that they like old books, but few buy them. Even if it costs patrons to check a book out of a library they still use the same instincts in selecting books that they use in a retail setting. In a new bookstore look at the physical qualities of the books that are currently popular. Talk to booksellers about which books sell frequently and which rarely. An open conversation with a bookseller over time will help a librarian to see underneath the surface of their patron’s behavior. If both librarian and bookseller can talk knowledgeably about their counterparts both patron and customer will perceive a larger world of Jewish books.
Use is the key. If we can get people into our places and use the books they find with us we will have no better defense of our cause. Invite the board of your organization to come for a tour of the library. Put some books directly in their hands. Make yourself more real to them than a line in a budget or a flickering page on a screen.
Between now and the time e-reading is taken for granted things will remain difficult. Some types of books will survive and thrive in general. Some will survive only because they have a specialized audience. If we succeed in making our value understood we will survive through the crisis and come out the other side valued and acknowledges as the important resources we are to our communities.