Could a “Books by Mail” Service Save UK Libraries?

Photo: Peter Dreisiger, Flickr

A few weeks ago I posted about problems within the UK library system and how US libraries seemed to be coping well, despite similar budget problems.

One of the US initiatives I was particularly intrigued by was the “books by mail” service in which books are posted directly to your door. I initially thought that this was a luxury service only to be afforded by wealthy libraries, but after doing a bit of research I firmly believe that all libraries could achieve this service and it could be the key to boosting UK library usage.


How does it work?

  1. The library user requests a book via the online library catalogue.
  2. The library posts the book directly to the home address of the user.
  3. When they have finished reading the book they can either return it through the post at their own expense or take it back to the library.

Why is it beneficial to the public?

Library opening hours are being reduced all the time and so it is increasingly hard for the public to get to the library, especially if they have a full time job during normal office hours.  Anything that makes life easier for busy people is good. It would be especially useful to those with mobility problems, but I think that everyone would love this service.

Why is it beneficial to libraries?

It would encourage more people to use the library.

The positive press would be fantastic. It would show that libraries are willing move with the times, listen to the needs of their customers and provide a fast, convenient service that is suitable for everyone.

It would mean that more people would love their library, creating a larger network of people willing to support it.

It allows libraries to direct-mail their customers, letting people know about future events or initiatives. Happy customers are more likely to respond to these mailings and so library events can grow.

Isn’t this service really expensive?


With Royal Mail Packet post it costs £1.38 to send parcels with an average weight of under 500g. From my book-selling experience I would estimate that it would cost less than £1.50 an item – much less if people requested several books at the same time. I’m sure that a large number of people would be willing to pay a small fee for the convenience of having a book delivered to their door, but I’d like to see this service provided free to all.

This could be achieved by enabling advertisers to pay for fliers within the packages.

Another option would be to reduce the library opening times. If all books can be mailed straight to your door then there is less need for the library to be open all day. I’m sure most people would accept a small reduction in library opening hours to help to pay for this improved service.

Case Study

Burlington County Library introduced a “books by mail” service in June 2008. It has been so successful that the scheme has since been rolled out to several other neighbouring library systems.

How many packages do you send each day?

Since the project begain in 2008 the average is 38 packages per day, but over the last eight months this has increased to 48.

The largest per day total, in February 2010 was 60.

How much did you spend on supplies and postage last year?

$4081 on supplies (nylon bags, padded envelopes and labels)

$42,387.23 on postage 

That is $2.56 per package, or $1.09 per item.

How much time is devoted each day to the process?

An average of four staff hours per day is spent checking out and packaging.

I found these numbers very encouraging. It makes the system sound feasible and I’m going to see if my local library is receptive to starting up this scheme.

Do you think a “books by mail” service would work in the UK?

Would you be willing to pay for the convenience?

Would it encourage you to use the library more frequently?

A special thank you to Peter Bromberg from Princeton Public Library’s mail service  for persuading me that the Books by Mail service is a wonderful thing!

51 replies on “Could a “Books by Mail” Service Save UK Libraries?”

That’s a really interesting idea. My first reaction was that I’d love it, and I probably would use it. However, returning books – it’s as inconvenient to go to the post office as to the library, so no change there. And by the time I’ve paid towards to cost of the service (I assume), plus the cost of requesting a book (most of the books I borrow are requests) and possibly for returning a book (posting outside office hours) I could probably buy a copy secondhand.
Where I live the mobile library used to turn up regularly and I guess still would, if we asked for it – and in rural Northumberland it provides a great, and necessary service. Also, our library opening hours are good, at the moment – I suspect because the library provides useful internet access for people who wouldn’t otherwise have it. I’d be sorry to see anything which reduced the hours.
I’d like to see a books by mail service given proper consideration, though.

GeraniumCat, You make some very good points. It sounds as though you have a good library service in your area – especially with access to the mobile library.

The main benefit I see would be the ability to borrow books without ever having to visit a library during opening hours – you could drop books off at any time of day/night. I can see why visiting a post office and queueing up to post books would be very annoying in some post offices. Post offices in the UK need a big change too, but don’t get me started on that one!

I like this idea, in theory! My problem is that many of the books at my library are hardcovers which don’t fit through the post slot. I’d probably still have to go to the regional office and get the package – so in the end I might as well go to the library myself.

I do think it could really work, you outline a lot of benefits, but probably not for me.

Meghan, Great point! I hadn’t thought about hardbacks not fitting through letter boxes. If you were going to use the service regularly then you could fix a lockable post box to your house or otherwise just wait for the paperbacks to be released 🙁

I like the idea, but I can see a lot of practical issues around the postal service and redefining roles of library staff.

But my biggest concern is that it only works when you know what book you want. How many people do?

A more positive thought that occurred to me was that here in Cornwall where we can reserve books from any library in the country there are several vans taking books from a to b. I’m sure that happens in other parts of the country too. So why not those vans deliver to a number of pickup points in every town rather than just the library?

FleurFisher, You’re allowed to reserve books from anywhere in the country? I’m not aware that I’m able to do that – I’ll have to ask if I can do that too. Thanks for drawing my attention to the possibility.

I always know which books I want (although can be tempted by those I didn’t know I wanted too!) I’m sure that those who enjoy browsing can continue to do so. I enjoy online browsing almost as much as physical browsing – especially since I can read reviews online. I’m sure people could get used to it if they wanted the convenience of books by mail.

I like the van idea, but imagine that could be difficult to arrange. Lots of ideas to think about. Thank you.

I visited my local library last month for the first time in 20 years. I used to love it there and was awed by the amount of books on offer. This visit though proved a somewhat different experience. I took my wish list with me which had 30 titles on it, mostly books published in the last 2 years. They had just ONE of those books available. There were less shelves and even those were nearly empty. Not a good experience. Maybe postal is the way to go. I’d pay a monthly or annual fee like I do with the DVD service I use, but they would have to drastically improve their collections for it to work.

The Slowest Bookworm, I agree that choice is a big problem in UK libraries – I often fail to find the books I’m looking for. With a postal system there would be no need to limit it to small areas – library stock could be combined to provide greater choice. I’d be happy to pay an annual subscription for a service like this – I’m sure it could work commercially even if libraries failed to start this initiative.

This sounds like a great idea for more rural areas, or areas that just don’t have good library service.

I wouldn’t be supportive of reduced library hours to pay for a service like this though. Our libraries are so much more than borrowing books, they really are community hubs and I think that if we continue to develop them in that way, and go beyond just books then we’ll see increase in use. Recently in a town nearby they started renting out video games and they saw the use of the library by teens increase by well over 50%. Because our libraries are used for more than just borrowing books, they have great hours (12 hours a day) which would make it easier for people to get there within their schedules.

Ok, so long story short I think it would be a good idea if UK libraries are suffering from reduced hours because obviously, closing it to cut costs isn’t going to bring more people to the library. But I do think that to save libraries we need to develop them beyond just books. Get people there and then they’ll borrow books. My husband wouldn’t go to the library until I dragged him in one day and he realized that they have comic books. Now he goes all the time.

Shannon, I don’t support reducing library opening hours, but I’d rather that happened than lose them altogether. I think the problem is that most libraries aren’t community hubs and they need to be. Initiatives like borrowing video games are great ideas and I think they should be looked into. The problem is that all these things cost money 🙁

I can see how this would be a good idea for more rural areas, where a lot of people may not live near a town with a library, but otherwise, I don’t see why it would be necessary. When I was living in London, my local library had one night a week where it was open until 8pm, it was open all day Saturday, and had a drop box for books and DVDs being returned after hours. In central London, most libraries are open even later than that, and there are loads by the main commuter stations to serve people who get back to the suburbs too late to use their local libraries.

I think this whole ‘I need everything to fit around MY BUSY LIFE’ attitude of people nowadays is the problem, not the library service. If you’re really THAT busy that you can’t possibly get to any library on any of the seven days of the week, then how have you got time to read in the first place?! I work full time, study part time, and have a long commute. I swing by the library next to Grand Central Station after work, am in and out with what I want in ten minutes, and am free to go on my way. No, they don’t always have the books I want available, but that’s life – it’s a free service used by millions of people, and demanding that everything I want be there everytime I want it, to fit MY schedule, is completely unreasonable. Part of the pleasure of using the library is browsing the shelves and picking up books I wouldn’t normally hear about or choose. By picking an alternative choice because the book I really wanted wasn’t available, I’ve found some great gems.

Yes, libraries should adapt to suit the needs of modern life, but there’s adaptation and there’s adaptation. I think a postal service is asking far too much and isn’t really necessary in most urban areas. Mobile libraries already do a similar job. A library is much more than a free book facility – they are hubs of the community. Schools use them, book groups use them, families use them, students use them, elderly people use them – they are places for people to meet, learn, and interact with others. Closing them early just so that a few people who can’t be bothered to go to the library can have their books posted to them is ridiculous, in my opinion! If you want the convenience of having books delivered to your door, then buy them from amazon. Libraries are not set up to deliver such a personalised and expensive service, and neither should they have to, unless, as I said first, the area is an extremely rural and isolated one, and it is not feasible to have a mobile library service due to distance/poor roads, etc.

Rachel, I do agree with much of what you say, but it sounds as though libraries in London are open far longer than in many other places in the UK. When I worked full time there was no way I could actually have made it to the library as it was always shut by the time I left work. I’m lucky that I can go to the library whenever I want, but my husband and many other working people don’t have that luxury.

The problem is that libraries in the UK are slowly dying. I take your points about it being a free service, but I would rather pay for a good service than risk losing it altogether. Unless libraries adapt and change with the times then they could all close soon. They need to think about new strategies to attract users, otherwise they will just be used by a few people wanting a free Internet connection.

I understand that outside of big metropolitan areas libraries often close earlier, but they are always open on the weekends, so I don’t buy that full time workers ‘can’t make it’ to the library. They can, if they really want to. If they can’t be bothered to go on a Saturday, then that’s their problem, not the library’s. My bank closes at 5pm during the week and only opens until 12pm on Saturdays – if I need it, I get there on Saturday morning. I’m not banging the door down, demanding that they open at a time more convenient for me. I work their schedule into mine. It’s as simple as that.

I think the reason libraries are dying (if they are dying at all – I’ve seen no real evidence of this) is due to poor administration more than anything else. As Falaise says, a lot of London boroughs, for instance, have loads of libraries that are very close to one another. Plus they have way more staff than they need – I used to work at my library and I know this for a fact! Close some of the smaller branches, amalgamate them with larger ones, reduce the amount of staff, and streamline the services on offer. This will save money and enable longer opening hours and more services for the public. I don’t think the issue is convenience at all – everyone can get to the library at some point during the week, whether that be on their lunchbreak, on their way home or at the weekend. It’s just whether they can be bothered or not. I think libraries have been great at adapting to modern needs – evening opening hours, computer access, DVDs, video games, CDs, free courses, book clubs, mother and baby clubs, etc – what more should we reasonably expect of a free service?! Start charging for it, and then we’ll really see the death of libraries – people wouldn’t pay for it. The price of paperbacks in the UK would mean it would make more sense for people to buy from amazon than to use the library.

Rachel, I disagree. If a book lover like myself cannot be bothered to drive through numerous traffic jams, pay for parking and drag myself through crowds of shoppers on a Saturday morning then what hope does the library have of attracting other people? If I didn’t have children then I don’t think I’d go at all and I think that is quite sad. Libraries do need to change to appeal to more people.

I don’t know anything about library administration so it is interesting to learn that you think big savings could be made. I really hope that the cuts force this streamlining and don’t affect the services they provide at the moment.

I also disagree that the libraries are a free service – we are all paying for them through taxes and we deserve to get value for the money we are spending on them. But I do think charging for premium services like “books in the mail” might be an option.

Hi Jackie,

Thanks for posting on the “books by mail” service. I wanted to point out to your readers that all of the resources from our pilot project (involving Gloucester and Burlington Co. libraries) are available at: Note that you can join a listserv and communicate directly with library staff involved in those projects if you have any questions.

All the best,


I like the idea in theory but there are some fundamental issues as the other commenters have pointed out that might not make it feasible.

More fundamentally, though, I think that we need to rethink the whole concept of public lending libraries in the UK to ensure that they remain relevant to local communities and that they can continue to provide a valuable resource despite the inevitable cost cutting to come.

For example, my local branch in SW London is only 15-20 minutes walk from another branch in the same borough. I would have thought the two could be combined, with a bit of creative usage of space. This would save on some fixed and variable costs and might even allow the Council to raise some additional revenue. Also, I would query whether libraries are trying to do too much with DVD and CD sections, computer terminals etc. Given the ubiquity of computers and the rock-bottom prices for most music and DVDs, maybe libraries need to refocus on their core objectives.

I also suspect that Books by Post may not be particularly relevant to users in urban areas where the libraries are likely to be closer in which case, maybe what is required for more rural areas is an reinvigoration of the mobile library service, which could be modified to deliver requests as well.

Falaise, I don’t know much about how libraries are run, but it does seem that there are many ways they could be made to be more efficient.

I’m undecided about DVDs etc. Part of me thinks that libraries should concentrate on supplying good books, but another realises that DVDs can help draw people into libraries. I think it is very hard to decide what to do for the best in some areas.

The more I think about it the more I believe that a large part of the answer may lie in how libraries present and market themselves rather than in the services they offer.

Is the outside of your library appealing? Does it advertise what is inside? Is is welcoming? can you find out easily how things work?

How many people have looked and found out the full range of what is on offer? How many people know that there are far more books than they see on the shelves? Books you can order in! Reserve stock! Other libraries in the run by the same local authority where they can use their ticket too! How many more people would use the library if they know?

Now more than ever libraries need to sell themselves!

Very true, Jane – I’m always surprised by how many people have no idea that libraries are so sophisticated these days. Everything can be done online now, too, which is a big bonus for us desk bound office workers – I can renew, place holds and browse the library catalogue from my office computer – what could be easier?!

A marketing drive would be useful – especially in the recession when people are looking for ways to save money. I think local authorities assume that people know what the library offers, but they have become so much more modernised and multi faceted in recent years that actually, most of the services they offer are very new to people who perhaps haven’t walked into a library for 10 years.

I agree. I think some libraries are very intimidating to new users and it does require a certain degree of confidence to ask about what services are on offer. It should be much easier for people to find out what is available to them. A library marketing drive could be very useful for everyone.

I can´t help envying you (= UK) a little when it comes to postage and book prices. In Denmark it would cost £ 3.40 to send most books so the future for our libraries will surely be e-books. It is possible to borrow e-books already, but the selection is not exactly impressive yet.

Dorte, Those prices are for bulk postal costs – most books would cost about £2 to send normally, but it does sound like it is still much cheaper here.

Perhaps you’re right about the ebooks though – maybe we’ll all just be borrowing ebooks from the library in a few years time?

An interesting idea, Jackie, but with post offices in rural areas being closed down, I’m not not sure this is the solution. See

Even in West London we’ve had two post offices close down in recent years, so metropolitan centres aren’t much better.

Of course, you can use the Royal Mail online service (which is brilliant), but if it’s a chunky book that doesn’t fit in a mailbox you still have to find a post office to deposit it.

And regardless of whether you can get yourself to a post office or not, the cost of postage won’t help attract young readers, because how on earth are they going to pay for the books to be sent back?

The only way a mail service for books would be feasible would be to introduce a subscription model, such as Love Films, where you pay an annual fee and then the postage is “free”. Of course, that kind of defeats the whole purpose of libraries being a free service; personally I’d rather use the money to buy a swag of second-hand books instead of paying to post them back!

As a few people have said above, the only real way to “save” libraries is to market them better and make them more attractive as places to visit. I walked past the one in Shepherd’s Bush today (near Westfield) and it was absolutely buzzing — loads of people, of all ages and races, sitting in the windows reading books. I note that they have extended hours — open until 8pm every week night — so if someone claims they can’t make time to get to the library, then honestly, how can they find time to read?? 😉

Kim, It is great to hear that the library you passed today was buzzing, but I do think that libraries in London benefit from the density of population and excellent public transport. The library in my town closes at 5pm each day. I wish I could describe it as buzzing, but I’m lucky if I see more than one member of the public in there.

I think you are right about the cost of second-hand books – it is a big reason that I am drawn away from the library.

It is such a shame that so many post offices are closing down. They provide a valuable service to many in the community too 🙁

I think we have talked about this before, but our library offers this service. It doesn’t come in the mail though, it is delivered by courier. Which must be a cheaper option I have to think, if that is the way they are choosing to deliver it. Downside – it can take a week or two to get the book, but you just plan around that. I have heard that a very wealthy home-bound person died and left a huge bunch of money earmarked for this service. I’m scared they are going to take it away, because I use it ALL THE TIME.

Sandy, I’m a bit jealous that you have this service. I know a lot of people who could really benefit from it and I’m not surprised that the elderly are especially keen for it to exist. I really hope that you keep your service.

It’s a nice idea for more rural areas. It’s my spring project to find out whether the local nursing homes need people to exchange library books for the residents. We have a little library in the village and I’d be willing to do that on foot for them, if necessary.

Very interesting idea, Jackie. I’m going to send the library columnist for Words With Jam (the lovely writers’ mag I do a column for) over to have a read.
I can see there might be controversy over advertising etc but as a micro publisher who runs lots of local events, I’d certainly be interested in looking at the possibility of paying 10p a time for a flyer placed in with certain orders chosen for genre, with a discount offer. I know two local bookshops that would also be most interested as well. Certainly worth exploring

Dan, I’m sure a lot of small businesses would be interested in this kind of direct marketing. I’d certainly be willing to put up with a few fliers if it meant I could have books delivered to my door. If the adverts were targeted then it could be really useful for me to find out about eg. childrens events with childrens books etc. I’ll be interested to see what your library columnist makes of the idea.

I really hope America can cling to its libraries. They remain one of the few truly useful, high quality public services in a country that is cutting everything it can take a knife to.

We do not have this service where I live. However, I can go on-line and order any book I want. When it’s ready for pick-up my library will email and phone me to let me know it’s ready. I never walk out of the library empty handed as a result.

The next county over they have a kiosk at the local public transit station (BART) where you can insert your library card and pick up requested books on your way to your morning train. When you’re finished, you return the book to the kiosk. Ordering is done entirely on-line.

I have heard of a few branches that have home delivery for a small fee. I bet you could get local high school students to deliver for tips in the evenings.

Whatever the future holds, libraries and librarians here seem well aware that they will have to adapt quickly to keep up with the challenges they will face.

cbjames, Having a collection point at stations is a fantastic idea too.

I also like the idea of getting school children to deliver books – could be like a little paper round for them. So many great ideas! Thank you!

What a great discussion – it’s fascinating! I think it’s a great idea in principle.
A lot have commented on having to collect chunky books from the PO. If it was a local scheme, you could have a delivery slot system perhaps like with your shopping and some sort of courier could drop it off …

I think the answer is to review/revise opening hours in order to make libraries more accessible to those who work 9-5. Our local library is open from 1-9pm two nights a week and 9-1 the three other weekdays and 9-1 on Saturdays. They haven’t increased costs by doing this. I think this is a much more practical idea than books by mail – with the increase in postage costs for books bigger than “large letter” (ie most of them!), the average book would be £1.95 to post and £2.84 for average sized hardbacks. Libraries don’t have enough money to buy new books with the recent cuts so they won’t be able to afford to subsidise these postal prices.

I read somewhere that book borrowing has increased over the years whereas library attendance has decreased. Maybe folk are more selective, do their browsing online, reserve more books etc. I’m a member of a very active online book-swapping forum and the main problem working folk have with library loans is the limited amount of time they have to read them and they prefer to have their own personal copies.

Budgets will continue to be cut for the foreseeable future so unless libraries can make money somehow closures will continue. Such a very sad state of affairs that our government does not value our libraries (or the National Health Service, but that’s another story…. 🙁 )

Teresa, I like your library’s opening hours – far more sensible than mine.

You are right about the postage costs for individuals sending books, but businesses can get the discount rates I mention. All packages are placed in a sack and the average weight of each package is calculated. This means that heavy hardbacks can be balanced with the lighter paperback ones and so average parcel weight should be fairly low. I think advertising within the packages could easily pay for this postage and so in theory it shouldn’t result in an increased cost to them.

I know the problem with the length of library loans, although my problem is only with long books. Reading The Kindly Ones in 6 weeks was a real struggle for me. I don’t think I’ll borrow a longer book again.

Like most people here this sounds like a good idea & the library does something close ie you can order online & have the books delivered to your nearest library. But again like most I’m worried that reducing stuff is a slippery slope. I think libraries need to make more of their community aspect.

That sounds like a great system! I wish we had something like that here. The closest thing we have is the ILL system which will mail you books from all over the country to your branch of the library, but not to your door.

I’m a uni distance student and my uni library has this service for the distance students. I make heavy use of it and I think I would make use of it from a “regular” library as well. It is so convenient. I pay for postage back to the uni if I post the books back, which I do because it is a 3+ hour round trip in the car to return them in person, I save money on postage. I think it could work.

I’ve been mildly shocked at the library system in New York. Not that it’s not good! But just compared to home, the hours are shorter, the books I want are spread across all these different locations, and the holds system is so, so slow. Books by post would be sort of great, for books I desperately wanted to read.

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