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.