Library books (and e-books) vs. physical copies of books for children
June 17, 2014 6:55 PM   Subscribe

What are the pros and cons of buying physical books vs. relying primarily on library books from the point of view of exposing one's future children to a wide variety of books?

A few years ago, I transitioned from buying many physical copies of books, to primarily relying on my library with a few e-book purchases here and there, mainly for vacations. Between my husband and I, we now own two small bookshelves of books. This suited our fairly itinerant grad student lifestyle and we enjoyed having fewer possessions to worry about. We've never had a problem getting interesting material to read on a regular basis from the library - we visit the library at least once a week, and between the two of us, have borrowed about 200 books from the library in the past year (we didn't get through all of them, but a fair chunk).

Growing up in India, our library system was poor to nonexistent, and my parents bought a lot of books. Somehow, there was always a budget for more books, and we had thousands of books covering the entire house. In later years (after I left home), my parents grew tired of having to keep up with so many books, and they were all boxed away, never to be seen again. It was partly in reaction to that, that I started my policy of buying very few books, and relying mostly on the library (once I got to a place where there were decent libraries, anyway).

But looking back at my childhood now, I am really of two minds. I read so many books, simply because they were there and I really feel I got a lot out of this kind of serendipitous discovery. My parents and I read many of the same books and could discuss them over meals. I could recommend good young adult fiction to my dad, and he would recommend good science fiction and fantasy to me. I read far, far above my grade level, simply because I was bored and there were so many adult books lying around. I enjoyed the feeling of a house filled with so many books - to me they were my friends and comfort, particularly the ones I reread. Some books were too advanced for me the first time I attempted them - I remember starting Pride and Prejudice at least five times before I finally got past the hump and realized how brilliant it was. Having so many books in the house allowed me to get to a particular book at my own pace, and when I truly wanted to read it.

I would love for my (future) children to get the same gift of this deep connection to books. Can that same sense of magic and discovery really be recreated in a house with few permanent books? This article seems to suggest that if I want smart kids, I should buy lots of books, but the kinds of factors that produce smart kids are hard to separate completely from a tendency to buy books, so I remain skeptical that this is causative. I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue (and if this all a lost cause in the age of ubiquitous electronic devices, I'm willing to hear that too).
posted by peacheater to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
We do both. We use the library literally several times a week (at minimum it's been once every few weeks for my kid's whole life). We also occasionally buy books, accept hand-me-downs, etc.

I really recommend both.

You will never have all the books in the library. A great thing about visiting is getting such a huge variety. It allows your kid to try new things without reservation or worry about money.

But having a shelf of books at home gives the kid familiar old loves to turn to any time. It reinforces that books are important - part of what "home" means. I feeling that for me, has lasted almost 40 years so far.

Research suggests that the number of books in your home (not how often you read them!) has a powerful impact on your child's long-term educational achievement.

I think a love of the physical book is part of what keeps me, personally reading.
posted by latkes at 7:07 PM on June 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

My parents did not have a large number of books personally, but each of us (the children) had several shelves of books in our own rooms. We regularly got books as one of our winter holiday gifts, and at random times throughout the year. I vaguely remember my parents reading to me before I could read myself, but after that we read on our own. As in, we WANTED to read, flashlight under the covers after lights out and choosing books over playing outside kind of wanting to read. I'm quite the nerd, but I digress...

We also were regulars in the library. During the summer we went once a week and each left with armfuls of books. I quickly figured out that the adult sections had much cooler books, and my mother never batted an eye. I think this is where most of my discovery happened.

Books were always considered awesome in my house, even when we didn't own a ton of them. Reading was encouraged, which I think is more of the point. It's not about owning the book, it's about reading the book.
posted by rakaidan at 7:11 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

We are a family that reads a lot. My 7yr old got a kindle during the summer between 1st and 2nd grade, mainly because his older brother had gotten one a few months earlier.

At the fall parent/teacher conference, I learned that his reading level had jumped up a lot between the assessments done at the end of 1st grade and the beginning of 2nd. I am 100% sure it's because of the kindle. My two boys (7 & 11) and I share an account, so I can wirelessly send samples of anything that looks interesting to their kindles, just by clicking on it from my computer. My rule is that if mom put the sample on your kindle, you are allowed to buy it - otherwise you have to ask. The instant gratification is awesome. All 3 of us read more now that we have kindles. And Amazon is frighteningly good at predicting what you want to read next and suggesting it to you. We have been known to spend $100/month on kindle purchases. With slightly more effort, I can borrow e-books from the library, but the selection isn't as great.

I used to think I was the sort of person that loved the physical presence of a book. Turns out, I am the sort of person who loves to click "Buy Now" and have whatever I want to read magically appear. I read a lot before having a kindle and I read even more now.

Also, since we share an account, the books that I bought for the 11 yo can be downloaded for free onto the 7yo's kindle once he's ready for them.

We have physical books in the house, but the vast majority of reading gets done on the kindles.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:22 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

The way you feel about the books that were in your home as a child, I feel about my childhood public library. The librarians were just fine with my wandering into the adult books as long as I was quiet, starting at around age nine or ten, before which I had a habit of just stealing things my mom had finished reading that she'd gotten out for herself. (Lest this seem too much like I'm labeling myself a prodigy, she mostly read cozy mysteries that ran short and simple.) We did have some books, but not tons, and more kids' picture books than anything else. So--seems like it works fine, to me.
posted by Sequence at 7:25 PM on June 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

I agree that you should do both.

I grew up in a house with a lot of books, and I also had a library card. The library was about two blocks away, so I could go any time I wanted.

The library allowed me to discover books on my own, which was valuable. I learned that I could explore what was available and choose what to read on my own, instead of simply reading my mom's books. I got exposure to books that my mom wouldn't have bought for herself.

But, I don't actually remember many of the library books I read! I read a lot of books, and most of them blended together - except for the ones I reread. I wasn't likely to reread a library book, simply because most of my rereads were impulsive. (I'd want something familiar in that moment, but I probably wouldn't plan to check out a book so I could reread it.) The books that really made an impression on me and became "friends" were books that I could reread at will because we owned them. These are the books that really shaped me as a reader and as a writer.

Also, about ebooks ... I grew up before ebooks were a thing. I suppose you can read ebooks whenever you want, but honestly, I find it more difficult to lose myself in an ebook than a paper book. Even if it's a dedicated reader like a Kindle (and not an ipad), I find all of the functionality distracting.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:30 PM on June 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

I learned to read from a very early age, and part of that was sneaking off with my parents' books (usually ones that had interesting pictures). It took a while for my parents to catch on. So, yep, I'm totally in favor of having books in the house.

I enjoyed the library, too, but library books often carried a feeling of obligation, and lacked the same spontaneity as flipping through something that was around the house. And I loved to re-read books (still do), and there's just something great about books that are yours.

You can still keep your own book collection spare and rely on the library or ebooks, but I'm all in favor of having lots of physical books around for your kids, especially in the early years when looking at the pictures and having favorite bedtime stories are important to them. Once they've developed that affinity for reading and have gotten old enough for chapter books, the library and ebooks will probably gain more importance.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:30 PM on June 17, 2014

Best answer: There is one huge difference in book consumption for children vs. adults.

Kids, especially little kids, like to have the same books read to them over and over. For example, I actually still have my loved and abused childhood copy of my favorite picture book. I made my parents read it to me ALL THE DAMN TIME, and then when I learned to read, I read it to myself even more. It would have been a royal pain in the ass if it had been a library book, and if my parents had some kind of stance against owning books.

When I got older, I continued to read my favorites over and over again. Not quite as intently as I had when I was picture book aged, but for example I remember reading Anne Of Green Gables once when I was just barely old enough for chapter books, and then again when I was about Anne's age, and getting a very different sense of it.

(Also, for that matter, little kids destroy books, so better to not constantly be replacing library copies until they're old enough to be trusted with them. YMMV if this is as true for ebooks, of course.)

As an adult I have a few favorites that I've read multiple times, but for the most part once I've read something, I'm done with it.
posted by Sara C. at 7:36 PM on June 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

Seconding both.

Library for the wonderful library ambiance and selection, special good quality owned books to treasure and read over and over.

Learning how to use a library--really really USE one, not just checking the catalog or computer-- is a fantastic skill that will stand them in good stead in their university years (and later.)
posted by BlueHorse at 7:42 PM on June 17, 2014 [2 favorites]


I've taken library classes in collection development, and public libraries often don't have the goal of (or money for) catering to niche subjects or tastes. Their goal is to provide a broad collection of high quality/popular books that will appeal to the general public. They can't buy everything! But they'll have popular stuff, classics, well-regarded subject standards.

I frequently browse Amazon/bookstores/goodreads etc... and when I find something I want to read I'll check the library first, and buy it myself if they don't have it. I'll also buy it if I love it and think I'll re-read it or want to be able to dip in and out as needed over time. This would be true for kids too. (So for example, if your kid loves the illustrator Chris VanAalsburg, I'd see which of his books the library has and buy the lesser known ones. Or if he's checking out the same damn thing every time, buy it. Or see what authors are similar but lesser known and buy those... supplement the library with a good complimentary home collection.)

I think my parents must have done something similar... the books we had at home were books that wouldn't have been at the library: psychology textbooks, chess, extensive sci-fi by specific favorite authors, a Cherokee-English dictionary, complicated origami, comic books, some American Girl books I'd requested for a birthday... large beautifully printed Edward Tufte books.

I'll also note (and this may be more of an issue as the kids get older) that turn-around time between publishing and something appearing on a library shelf is... long. I find in certain subjects that books have a tendency to be out of date (or very dated) and end up buying the one *I* want for that reason too.
posted by jrobin276 at 8:46 PM on June 17, 2014

Best answer: We just downsized our home library again for this reason. If we kept all the books we'd bought, we would by now be sleeping on beds of books for lack of room. Our rules are:

1. Kids always get books. If they ask for a book, we buy it or borrow it. There are strict limits on clothes, toys etc, but books always get a free pass.

2. Kids' books in their bookshelves in their rooms are theirs to keep or not as they decide. Each kid has at least 2-3 shelves for books. One kid has half a shelf filled, another has books stacked under his bed.

3. Regular library trips (at least once a month) and ebooks for access. If we go out, we stop at a bookstore often as well. I set up ebooks for them, but only one reads on her iphone. However, the youngest just got reading rainbow on the ipad and has flipped out over it - we had three books before school on that. I have tried a lot of kids' reading apps and ebook apps and reading rainbow gets it so so well - just enough bells and whistles, a good curation of books and fantastic reading voices.

4. When I downsized her books, I kept everything she has brought to us to read at least twice, books that I had as a little girl and loved, and books that were difficult to replace, like a now out of print anthology of fairy tales that is particularly good, although not quite her age yet. I cut her shelves to half and she hasn't noticed because she wasn't reading those books anyway.

5. Our kids see us reading a lot. I tell them when I'm reading on a screen and I try to read the same books as them - Diary of a wimpy kid, etc. I like YA so that's easy for me. But having books and reading and story experienced is a good thing. My dyslexic kid listens to audiobooks, so I make myself listen or read as well, so we can talk about the narrative and characters. I don't think he'd read at all if we didn't have such relentless reading around him.

6. What's your personal minimum for a home library? We keep reference books, instructional books we use, out of print books (stored away), books we plan to re-read within 2 years, and sentimental novels, ruthlessly pruned, plus kids' favourites. That's about 800 books maybe? This is the smallest we would want to go, so we just prune back - a new book comes in, we see if another book can go. And we give them away (bookcrossing or to friends).
posted by viggorlijah at 9:00 PM on June 17, 2014

Best answer: Can that same sense of magic and discovery really be recreated in a house with few permanent books?

I think a love of reading is a love of reading. You may find that when/if you have kids you have a less-itinerant lifestyle and having a few more bookshelves becomes what you do. Or you may find that the whole family is on the go and you get into the habit of recycling your reading through or something similar and maintain a similar lifestyle to what you have now. I think it's important for kids to have some of their own books just like I think it's good for them to have their own toys and their own clothes they like, etc. Books are a way that people try things on to see what works for them, and a way they learn about the world. Kids also get books as presents quite often so there should probably be some accommodation for books in the house at some level. I know parents who live in small places and have limits on space generally and they still manage to make sure each kid has their own bookshelf.

That said, the library is about more than books. There's socializing with other kids, learning to fulfill your own information needs, meeting other kids who may like different books, going to kids programs and, at some point, reading books that your parents may not even know much about (or like!). It's about meeting other adults who are really into books who can give you advice on what you read or listen to or watch and it's to interact with a community of voluntary readers (which isn't always what school is) in a public space that everyone supports. And just from a book-borrowing perspective, it's for being able to take home ten books and maybe deciding you only want to read six of them without anyone hassling you about money or anything like that.

I still have a really special place in my life for the books I grew up with and had at home (Winnie the Pooh, Frog and Toad, Amelia Bedelia, Encyclopedia Brown) but I also have strong attachments to some of the cool books my library had that we'd never get at home (compendiums of comics, self help books, a million joke books) and those were important too. Device-based reading means, to some people, that you don't borrow books as often but it's still totally possible and there are some great resources like Open Library (where I work) and things like the ICDL which are great for helping kids get a worldwide view of children's literature, even if they live somewhere that doesn't have as large a range of options.
posted by jessamyn at 9:11 PM on June 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree with all the "both"-ers above. Since I had kids (and got an e-book reader about the same time!), I have been more strategic about what books to buy in hardcopy and what to buy in e-text (and what to borrow at the library). I think of the books I choose in hardcopy as "childbait," intended to sit on the shelf looking enticing and be weird and wonderful and strange and thoughtful and world-expanding when the kids, on a rainy afternoon when they're stuck at home, pull them off the shelf in boredom to flip through.

The is an idiosyncratic selection that relies partly on what I love (poetry, history), partly on books I loved as a child, partly on Great Books (Plato, Shakespeare), and partly on shit that is irresistibly page-flipping, like brilliantly-colored, oversized atlases, or collections of pictures of jellyfish, or exploded diagrams of machines. I recall, vividly, studying my parents' atlas for hours and hours on end trying to understand the bigness and strangeness of the world and becoming more and more curious about it, and I try to stock some shelves with things that are similarly curiosity-inducing and puzzling.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:24 PM on June 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yup, I'm another "both" answerer. FWIW, also a librarian. A thing to remember is that libraries have to weed their collections. So just because you got the book there once doesn't mean it will always be there to be re-read (and many kids are big re-readers, as mentioned above). Using the library as a way of exploring new things and complementing it with the special favourites is a great strategy. I've actually gone to considerable effort later in life to find again the books I particularly loved in my childhood. I don't reread them all the time, certainly not as much as I did as a child, but it comforts me to know they are there and I can whenever I want.

I have actually started applying this to my physical books vs ebooks too. Things I don't feel strongly about but would like to read I'll get as ebooks. The ones that really resonate or feel special are print books. (Availability in one format vs another also comes into play, of course.)
posted by Athanassiel at 3:47 AM on June 18, 2014

Something to consider for later in life: I was a big reader growing up but most of the books were from the library (and those Scholastic books). Nowadays, I'd love to reread some of the YA ones but I can not remember the titles, authors, and can barely remember the plots. With the internet, I've tracked down a few. It's not a big thing and the detective work is fun but I wish I'd thought to keep a list back then.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:28 AM on June 18, 2014

Definitely both. There's a special feeling for visiting the library on a regular basis and finding new books, as well as having a room filled with shelves of books back home that I also had access to peruse.

I do also want to say that one of the benefits of utilizing the library for me is the political education it gives kids. It's a public space where different people can come and participate in programs and check out books.
posted by SollosQ at 7:52 AM on June 18, 2014

In our house it depends on the age of the child.

I started reading to my son somewhere around the age of 4-6 months. That was just board books, and they were things we'd been given or I'd purchased, because little kids put books in their mouths! And you don't want that with a library book, ew.

Around 2yrs or so I started borrowing kids books from the library because I noticed that my kid would absolutely absorb a new book for a week or two, and then would be completely over it. The bookshelf in his room was overflowing, and we weren't prepared to turn our whole house into a library as your folks did.

At 3yrs now, I do still buy books for him, but they are classics or have exceptional illustrations that I think will still be interesting to him in a few years. Mostly we borrow from the library or friends. He has already been conditioned to not break books, or tear pages. He's very careful with them.

At school (daycare), the teachers say that he will often sit down and "read" a book to himself (which is really him looking at the pictures and then verbalizing a story based on what he sees; he has learned to look at all of the details in a picture, and to discern the emotions on the faces of the characters).

We are different from a lot of modern parents, in that we do not give a lot of screen time to our son yet. We will likely start to introduce to more screen time after the age of five or so. At that point we'll probably allow him to get an ereader.
posted by vignettist at 8:39 AM on June 18, 2014

Best answer: I'll parrot all the "both!" answers above, and add that as a kid, I vastly preferred building my own personal book collection to going to the public library. My parents were very big on buying me books; I adored trips to the bookstore in the mall, where I'd be allowed to pick out a new book or two. In my head, that was so much better than the library, because I'd have to give back library books and what if they were really good and I'd want to read them again in a few months and and and. So I had a ton of books.

As I got older, a lot of my books got handed down to my little brother and enjoyed all over again. Others became hand-me-downs for cousins or family friends. I reread several of my favorites to death, until bindings gave way and loose pages went everywhere. And then I got replacement copies.

Now I'm in my 30s and my brother is in his 20s. I'm visiting our parents at the moment, and the other day I came across my old copy of Superfudge by Judy Blume. Memories, man... It was one of my all-time favorites, and after rereading it endlessly for myself, I then read it out loud to my bro over and over when he was preschool-age. It helped him learn to read. We still quote our favorite lines to each other now and then. If I'd checked Superfudge out of a library a time or two instead, we wouldn't have had that same experience.

So yeah, libraries are great, but I'm a fan of building personal libraries for kids as well. Books can always been donated or handed down as a kid loses interest, so it's not like you're sentenced to a life of Hoarders-like clutter if a kid has a full bookcase.
posted by QuickedWeen at 10:57 AM on June 18, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you for sharing your experiences and advice! It looks like the consensus is to both use libraries and build a personal library at home. I guess this is what I was leaning toward when I posted this question, so I'm glad to hear that others agree. I'm going to move towards purchasing a few more books than I have been for the past couple years.
posted by peacheater at 3:32 PM on June 19, 2014

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