No golden age of books: “five hundred or so legitimate bookstores” in the US in the 1930s

As people lament the closure of chain bookstores like Borders as well as independent bookstores, having fewer bookstores may not be sending us to some dark age. Indeed, easily accessible and abundant bookstores may be a relatively recent feature of society: there were few bookstores in the US in the 1930s.

I haven’t gotten far enough along in the book [Two-Bit Culture by Kenneth C. Davis] to tell you how Davis argues the story, but early in the book, I was absolutely dumbfounded by his description of the publishing business in 1931. He draws on a “landmark survey of publishing practices” carried out by one Orin H. Cheney, a banker, as a service to the National Association of Book Publishers…

“In the entire country, there were only some four thousand places where a book could be purchased, and most of these were gift shops and stationary stores that carried only a few popular novels,” Davis writes. “In reality, there were but five hundred or so legitimate bookstores that warranted regular visits from publishers’ salesmen (and in 1931 they were all men). Of these five hundred, most were refined, old-fashioned ‘carriage trade’ stores catering to an elite clientele in the nation’s twelve largest cities.”

Furthermore, two-thirds of American counties — 66 percent! — had exactly 0 bookstores. It was a relatively tiny business centered in the urban areas of the country. Did some great books come out back then? Of course! But they were aimed only at the tiny percentage of the country that was visible to publishers of the time: sophisticated urban elites. It wasn’t that people couldn’t read; by 1940, UNESCO estimated that 95 percent of adults in America were literate. No, it’s just that the vast majority of adults were not considered to be part of the cultural enterprise of book publishing. People read stuff (the paper, the Bible, comic books), just not what the publishers were putting out.

This data suggests that there is a big difference between books being published (and there is a reason the printing press is regarded as a major invention in human history) and how books can be purchased by consumers. There were not a lot of bookstores where people could browse thousands of volumes, let alone go online at and find tens of thousands of books.

If there was a paucity of bookstores in the 1930s, might the profile of libraries have been higher then? Libraries would have been one of the few places where average citizens could have found a wider range of books. Indeed, just before this period was when the Carnegie libraries were built:

A Carnegie library is a library built with money donated by Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. 2,509 Carnegie libraries were built between 1883 and 1929, including some belonging to public and university library systems. 1,689 were built in the United States, 660 in Britain and Ireland, 125 in Canada, and others in Australia, New Zealand, Serbia, the Caribbean, and Fiji.

That is a lot of libraries when there were only 500 or so bookstores in the entire United States.

College students don’t know how to use Google

I recently heard about this study at a faculty development day: college students have difficulty understanding and using search results.

Researchers with the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries project watched 30 students at Illinois Wesleyan University try to search for different topics online and found that only seven of them were able to conduct “what a librarian might consider a reasonably well-executed search.”

The students “appeared to lack even some of the most basic information literacy skills that we assumed they would have mastered in high school,” Lynda Duke and Andrew Asher write in a book on the project coming out this fall.

At all five Illinois universities, students reported feeling “anxious” and confused when trying to research. Many felt overwhelmed by the volume of results their searches would turn up, not realizing that there are ways to narrow those searches and get more tailored results. Others would abandon their research topics when they couldn’t find enough sources, unaware that they were using the wrong search terms or database for their topics.

The researchers found that students did not know “how to build a search to narrow or expand results, how to use subject headings, and how various search engines (including Google) organize and display results.” That means that some students didn’t understand how to search only for news articles, or only for scholarly articles. Most only know how to punch in keywords and hope for the best.

Such trust in technology. Wonder where this came from?

I like how anthropologists were involved in this study. Including an observation component could make this data quite unique. I don’t think many people would think that ethnographic methods could be used to examine such up-to-date technology.

Several other thoughts:

1. How many adults could explain how Google displays pages?

1a. If people knew how Google organized things, would they go elsewhere for information?

2. Finding and sorting through information is a key problem of our age. The problem is not a lack of information or possible sources; rather, there is too much.

3. Who exactly in schools should be responsible for teaching this? Librarians, perhaps, but students have limited contact. Preferably, all teachers/professors should know something about this and talk about it. Parents could also impart this information at home.

4. I’m now tempted to ask students to include all of their search terms in final projects so that I can check and see whether they actually sorted through articles or they simply picked the top few results.

Throwing the book at them

What’s the advantage for libraries seeking to move to e-book formats?  Not much, according to this article from Library Journal:

HarperCollins has announced that new titles licensed from library ebook vendors will be able to circulate only 26 times before the license expires….Josh Marwell, President, Sales for HarperCollins, told LJ that the 26 circulation limit was arrived at after considering a number of factors, including the average lifespan of a print book, and wear and tear on circulating copies.

This is utterly ridiculous.  One of the major advantages of e-books is that they don’t wear out.  Whatever happened to products that become “new and improved” with innovation rather than “same because crippled”?

Oh, that’s right — copyrights create a legal monopoly that allow for monopolistic behavior of the sort we regularly see from utility companies and the DMV.  Now I remember.

Even so, HarperCollins’ move here seems incredibly short-sighted.  They may well be killing off a lucrative new market (e-books for libraries) before it has a chance to develop fully.  After all, most people still don’t have e-book readers and find it inconvenient to read books from a computer screen.  As for libraries,

further license restrictions seem to come at a particularly bad time, given strained budgets nationwide. It may also disproportionately affect libraries that set shorter loan periods for ebook circulation.

Between the growing number of contemporary authors who distribute their books with a Creative Commons license and the growing repository of easily accessible public domain works in electronic text (“book”) and spoken (“audiobook”) form, there may be a great swath of written culture from the 20th century that becomes effectively inaccessible.

Update 2/28/2011: TechDirt has now picked up this story.

Issues with the world’s largest digital library

While Google seems cleared to become an important scholarly destination due to its efforts to create the world’s largest digital library, Geoffrey Nunberg argues the system has some critical problems:

But to pose those [scholarly] questions, you need reliable metadata about dates and categories, which is why it’s so disappointing that the book search’s metadata are a train wreck: a mishmash wrapped in a muddle wrapped in a mess…

But I have the sense that a lot of the initial problems are due to Google’s slightly clueless fumbling as it tried master a domain that turned out to be a lot more complex than the company first realized. It’s clear that Google designed the system without giving much thought to the need for reliable metadata. In fact, Google’s great achievement as a Web search engine was to demonstrate how easy it could be to locate useful information without attending to metadata or resorting to Yahoo-like schemes of classification. But books aren’t simply vehicles for communicating information, and managing a vast library collection requires different skills, approaches, and data than those that enabled Google to dominate Web searching.

I’m sure Google is interested in correcting some of these issues – even their famous search algorithm is under constant scrutiny as they search for more optimal ways to present information.

Even as these problems are ironed out, it does seem like having this kind of digital library could transform scholarly research. Just as I can’t imagine a world where all sociology articles are online (and I can access many of them), years from now we may look back and wonder how people operated without a vast online library of digital books.