A bookstore like Barnes and Noble, however, is not comparable to a library at all. A chain bookstore often seems to contain fewer unique titles than the average library and these titles seem to be chosen based primarily on sales. When I walked around Barnes and Noble on my last visit, I found myself severely disappointed by how few books the store really contains. Multiple copies of Wimpy Kid, Who Was, Dog Man, and Harry Potter greeted me from the shelves of the children’s section. Meanwhile, newer releases I was searching for were missing, as were some popular children’s titles, some of them award winners.
Bookstores, and chain bookstores in particular, often seem to stock their shelves based on what will make them money, while libraries curate collections with a far different set of criteria. Libraries do make an effort to purchase popular titles, but they also consider the quality of books (based on professional reviews and industry awards), the gaps in their collection (what subjects are missing or need to be updated), and the need for diverse representation (both in fiction and non-fiction). The selection libraries have to offer is, quite simply, far wider than whatever is trending at the moment.
The commitment of libraries to housing all types of books is also why students are better off going to the library, and not a store, for homework assignments. The average bookstore does not typically stock books on obscure topics, nor do they offer a wide selection of non-fiction in general because non-fiction titles tend to be expensive (not uncommon when a book is marketed to a limited audience). The average parent is not likely to spend $20 or even $30 on a book that will be read once for a school assignment, so there is no reason for a store to stock such books. Libraries, however, often seen themselves as repositories of knowledge, and so remain dedicated to keeping obscure titles that fill in gaps in their collections, even if those titles do not circulate often.
Of course, there are indie bookstores that specialize in niche books and that often make a point to stock quality titles, local authors, indie authors, and unusual books that may not be popular, but may still appeal to their specific audience. (My own indie bookstore, before it closed, had a real fondness for pricey gift books for children, as well as for offbeat middle-grade titles–things Barnes and Noble was less likely to sell.) However, such stores, generally speaking, are still no replacement for a library. Books parents may ask for at a library, such as ones that help children process grief or ones that help children try new foods, are simply not titles that sell enough copies to justify taking up shelf space in the average store. Or stores may contain a few titles on a subject, but not as many as the library.
None of this is to say that bookstores are not wonderful places to visit; I love going in bookstores myself. However, I am baffled by book lovers and parents who consistently use bookstores as libraries–and never actually set foot in their local libraries. Perhaps, being less familiar with the book industry, they really see no difference between what bookstores shelve and what libraries shelve. Maybe they don’t care. Maybe they just want to be able to drink coffee while they read or let their children play. But I can’t help but think that many people would find a world of new books opened up to them if they would set foot in the library now and then–and could discover titles besides Dog Man.