Why don't public libraries deliver?


The Anacostia Library. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

[Updated 2-9-16, at end]

Over the past few months, I've become something of a devotee of the D.C. Public Library system. It's pretty terrific. Their online interface (at dclibrary.org) is outstanding, and it takes all of 30 seconds or so to find out if there are any available copies of any book you might be looking for, to place it on "hold" and to have it delivered to your neighborhood branch—where, as your email or text alert will inform you, it generally shows up the next day.

The whole experience feels a lot like Amazon Prime—search, click and you have your book in hand in a day or two. [And here I insert the required disclaimer: as most of you surely know, Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Post.] Of course, it's different from Amazon Prime in a few obvious ways: you don't get to own the book, and you have to go pick it up yourself—which, depending on how close you are to a library, can be a pain.

On the other hand, it's free, which is a plus. And as someone who lives in a house that is filled to overflowing with books that I will never, ever, look at again, I'm okay with the obligation to return the book (and actually rather grateful that the library is obligated to take it back so it won't clutter up my shelves).

It got me to thinking: Why doesn't the library team up with somebody with real expertise in the logistics of home delivery—Amazon, UPS or one of the many food delivery services that have sprung up over the past year or so—to figure out a way to cover "the last mile"—the journey from the library to my house and back again? Then it really would seem even more like Amazon Prime, and I can't imagine that that wouldn't help grow the market for library books.

I would expect there to be a fee for the service, to be sure—but the routing algorithms these days are awfully good and awfully efficient, and I would think that you could charge a fee low enough to attract a significant amount of business but high enough so that you could make a profit (while simultaneously getting lots more books into the hands of lots more people). Calling all entrepreneurs!

[UPDATE: Some feedback with info on public library systems that do have home delivery options: My friend and colleague Michael Froomkin at U Miami informs me that the Miami-Dade Public Library System—which he describes as "a civic jewel"—does indeed have a home delivery system in place, $3 per book. And Mary Hodel, director of the Orange County Public Library System in Orlando, FL, tells me that their system offers free home delivery—nice!]

NEXT: The paradox of unanimity

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