Reading the article Should libraries get out of the ebook business? by Bobbi Newman got me thinking about the importance of library e-book lending in the current climate:
In an interesting and thoughtful article, Newman suggests that libraries should stop lending e-books altogether until a better e-book lending model is available and the publisher landscape has settled on devices and formats. As the proportion of the population owning an e-reader is still relatively low (she estimates 19%), libraries’ limited budgets could (temporarily) be better spent elsewhere.
For many librarians struggling to balance decreasing funds with a time-consuming and costly e-book lending system, I’m sure this article will strike a lot of chords. And if we’re just looking at the very short-term, then her proposed solution could make sense. Perhaps some libraries could serve their current patrons’ needs more cost effectively by removing themselves from the e-book market.
But I think this article misses one vital point: as librarians we need to think beyond the needs of our current patrons and plan for the needs of future users in many years to come. And right now that means carving a strong place for ourselves in the e-book market to guarantee our future survival.
I think we’ve reached a crucial point in e-book development. The fact that the whole system is in flux at the moment is the very reason why we need to be fighting to remain a part of it. If we wait until the publishing industry has settled on pricing models, devices and formats we may find it has also settled into an industry that no longer includes libraries at all.
Like it or not e-books are here to stay, e-reader ownership is accelerating and the shift away from print may happen more quickly than we think. A recent survey found that the percentage of Americans owning e-readers jumped from 10% to 19% between mid December and mid January while a UK survey estimated that 1 in 40 adults was given an e-reader as a Christmas present. Even taking into account the Christmas boom, it seems likely that the ownership percentage will increase rapidly in coming months and the e-book landscape may look very different in a year’s time – maybe even in 6 months’ time.
Libraries can advocate from outside the e-book market, certainly. However, at a time when libraries are struggling to prove their relevancy, I think moving away from e-book lending, even temporarily, sends a dangerous message to our patrons. It might satisfy many of our current print-based users in the short term (and would no doubt please some library staff), but these are not the users of the future.
Even though it’s complicated and costly and we might not be able to provide all the books that our patrons want, I still think it’s vital that libraries maintain their presence in the e-book lending market one way or another. If public perception is that libraries “don’t do e-books”, I think it might be the beginning of the end. And what effect would that have on future generations? No more free and equal access to information for all? A literary world dominated solely by commercial enterprises?
Far from getting out of the e-book business I think we should be fighting our way in with everything we’ve got. We owe it to our future users.
I would be very interested to hear what everyone else thinks about this issue. Please comment!
- We’re excited to announce that Stewart Bain aka @OrkneyLibrary will be speaking at the MmITS AGM on Tuesday 24th April in Glasgow University Library! See our website for more details.