The two best things about 10-year prognostication are that no one knows if you're a fool or a genius until it's too late to spoil the fun, and that you start to understand how little you know about the present.
In trying to predict how libraries will fit into the ebook economy (and I've decided to start leaving out the dash) I began by trying to explain the role of libraries in the print book economy. I quickly ran into the fact that it's difficult to get good estimates of how large the market role of libraries really is!
I talked to Outsell Chief Analyst Leigh Watson Healy, co-author of the Book Industry Study Group's Book Industry TRENDS report (highlights are here). Outsell estimates that the total US book market in 2009 was 41 billion dollars. They estimate that book sales to libraries was a bit over 1.6 billion dollars, which is almost 4% of the total market.
Another way to estimate the economic footprint of libraries is to look at library budgets. The Institute of Museum and Library Services publishes an annual survey (available here) of all the government-supported public libraries in the US. For the last year available, 2007, they compute that US public libraries spent 934 million dollars on their print collections (including serials). IMLS is counting something different from Outsell and there are a number of reasons the numbers would be different; my guess is the Outsell numbers, which are gathered from publishers, include a lot of libraries that either don't fit into the IMLS definitions or are outside the US.
Similar information for the UK is available from the British Booksellers Association and the Public Library Materials Fund and Budget Survey. UK public libraries spent 77 million pounds on books in 2008, while the British public spent a total of 2.3 billion pounds on books, suggesting that public library spending was 3.3% of the total.
Public libraries are only part of the library market, of course. Academic, school, medical and corporate libraries are also purchasers of books. Altogether, it seems likely that libraries total at least 5% of the book market, which is nothing to sneeze at. If we assume that public libraries buy books that are predominately in the juvenile and adult trade categories, then even the IMLS total is over 6% in those categories. In some segments of the book market, such as academic monographs, libraries probably make up much more of the total market.
The IMLS report also has some numbers relevant to my prediction of fewer libraries, more locations. In 2007, there were 9,040 "central" public libraries, 7,564 "branches" and 808 bookmobiles in the US. The per capita expenditures on public libraries was $37.21, and Americans borrowed an average of 7.3 books per year.
I plotted some of the IMLS data to see if if my fewer libraries prediction is just an extrapolation of a trend. It's not. The total number of libraries and library locations, held pretty steady between 2003 and 2007, after rising slightly from 1998-2003.
Part of the reason libraries are not merging is expressed by Katherine Gould in her comment on my fewer libraries post. Her library district has had good success with a small satellite branch, but the idea of merging libraries isn't one that appeals to her. It shouldn't; the tradeoffs of libraries vs. locations are painful, and only likely to occur in times of economic hardship. Oh.
A good example of the "storefront libraries" that I described is the Chinatown Storefront Library in Boston. An expermental, temporary library in a vacant storefront, the Storefront Library (唐人街店面图) is the ultimate "lean" library. It uses donated books, LibraryThing cataloguing, volunteer labor, community support, and a surplus of optimism about libraries. It will close the week after ALA Midwinter comes to town; I definitely recommend going by to take a look at the future of library locations. I certainly will!