John and I have been friends since the first library camp up in Ann Arbor. Kay and I captured this video a couple of years ago at the Internet Librarian Conference and then it just sat around in a drawer in my office. I found it and thought “Oh my god how did I forget to edit this footage.” I did manage to edit it and then I forgot to write a blog post about it. Now I am having that moment again where I am going “Oh my god why did I not write a blog post.” John is one of the coolest, nicest and smartest guys out there in libraryland. If he is talking at a conference that you are attending I would recommend going to his session.
E-books: Tipping Point, or Pointless Panic?
E-books are not going to destroy libraries or make them irrelevant; neither will libraries find themselves competing with bookstores. Are we competing with them now? We are not competitive-based organizations. I don’t think we know the first thing about competitive marketing and I don’t think we should. It is like asking an art museum to compete with a commercial art gallery. One is about culture and the other is about commerce. What are libraries competing for; competitive market share? We are swimming in patrons. Are we competing for relevance? Open your eyes; culture and education are not a priorities compared to military dominance, commerce, sports and public safety. We will never have that level of relevance and striving for it is waste of time and energy.
What we do have (and I think Jason Griffey states it well in the August 2010 Library Journal) is that libraries are the balancing force in society for providing access to information. There are many economic forces that work to limit and control access but libraries provide that counterpoint.
The world does not really change. Even the all-powerful Internet did not change the world. There are going to be some pundits that disagree. We may have changed how we do things, but not what we are doing. We have families, we go to work, we buy stuff, we fight with other countries and we watch politicians bungle things up. We just use different tools to do the same things that we have done for thousands of years. It’s the human condition, and that is not changing. We do wonderful, smart, beautiful things and the other side is that we are mindless, violent and cruel and do horrible things.
People are still going to consume information and that, in some instances, means read. The institution of the public library will survive and we will circulate e-books. What is more interesting to me right at the moment is; will the public library ever own the e-books they purchase?
If you use Overdrive (the only game in town, that’s why I am using them as an example) you are purchasing a hosting for them to store the e-books and then you are paying a licensing fee to loan this material. So what happens if you don’t renew the hosting fee? Your collection is lost. What happens if Overdrive goes bankrupt? Your collection is lost. The nice person at Overdrive told me that this would never happen. I reminded him that in the not-too-distant past we just about lost two of the three automakers and almost sunk the entire financial market and we as taxpayers had to bail them out. If this was possible then wasn’t it possible that at sometime in the future Overdrive might run into financial problems? And I was wondering what might become of the collection I had put thousands of dollars into building. They assured me again that this would never happen. So with this assurance, I am now thinking about building an e-book collection.
What kind of e-book collection might I build? One that I am not afraid of losing and here is the beauty of e-books. Start by building an e-book collection that is disposable. Libraries kind of do this already. If the latest John Grisham comes out we buy a couple of hundred copies and in a year we weed out a large number. I know that the latest titles are not available in e-book format but this will probably change before the ownership, licensing, lending model gets figured out. So think of them as a “give them what they want” collection rather than a “give what they need” and realize that e-books will not destroy libraries, but a population where 25% of the people don’t read a book in a year probably will.
There are a number of issues that surround E-books. The focus today is on the device and the options they provide rather than digital rights. These concern ownership, copyright and licensing of E-books. The rights that are imbued to the physical form do not transfer to the E-book. You do not have right of first ownership with an E-book and as Amazon demonstrated with the removal of George Orwell’s “1984” from Kindles, you do not completely have control of the item that you have purchased. This means that you are purchasing without gaining ownership. What you are gaining is licensing attached to your purchase.
This is important concept to understand for libraries as they start creating E-book collections. Overdrive is only really licensing access to the E-books even though the library is required to purchase the item at retail cost and then pay an additional hosting fee to access the collection.
While the blame for this design is easily laid at the feet of Overdrive, it is really the publishers that are forcing this model. Publishers are forcing libraries to purchase an E-book for each item they circulate. In the digital world, this is asinine. While in the physical world there is a cost to reproduce a book and distribute, in the digital world the cost is close to zero.
So while we think of all the wonderful possibilities that E-books might offer, there are some hazards. It is possible today to create a E-book collection but what happens if Overdrive goes bankrupt, will the that collection be lost? My feeling is that this answer is yes, it will be lost. If the library can no longer afford to pay the access fee, then will that collection will be lost? What happens to the collection? If you want to transfer that collection to another vendor that offers lower hosting costs can you do that today? The answer to that question is no.
Finally, something to think about; who is protecting the digital rights of citizens and libraries in this country?