Ebooks and Libraries: Is it Worth the Effort?

No Public Access by fuzzcaminski, via Flickr
No Public Access by fuzzcaminski, via Flickr

From HarperCollins to Penguin to Random House, libraries have been caught in the ebook crossfire and the collateral damage hasn’t been pretty. While I understand publishers’ concerns about the impact library lending of ebooks might have on sales, what I don’t understand is putting the onus for disproving that speculative notion on libraries’ plates.

“We are requesting data that libraries can share about their patrons’ borrowing patterns that over time will better enable us to establish mutually workable pricing levels that will best serve the overall e-book ecosystem.”

–Stuart Applebaum, Random House

Translation: Prove to us that lending doesn’t negatively impact sales. (Because, honestly, we don’t have a clue.)

Two years after “standing up” to Amazon by handing Apple instant market share in the ebook space, and jumping through hoops to supply every other harebrained ebook startup with shoddily formatted content, with nary a thought given to device interoperability nor optimal user experiences, and in the wake of the #2 domestic book retailer finally going bankrupt, libraries have seemingly become the one kid on the playground publishers think they can bully into submission.

In an age where physical retail shelf space is shrinking everyday, and virtual shelf space is growing exponentially, like a black hole, why would you go out of your way to alienate arguably the most loyal and dependable partners you have?

These organizations, wildly irrational in economic terms and massively underwritten by public resources, acquire the world’s literature and then make it continually available, without discrimination, through free circulation. Through libraries, we optimistically assert that knowledge uplifts us all, and that our culture becomes richer when it is shared. The famous inscription on the main branch of the Boston Public Library, “FREE TO ALL,” is true in the instance, but only because we all make contributions towards its realization.

–Defining “Library,” Peter Brantley

Restricting libraries’ access to ebooks, either outright or via licensing and pricing schemes, is effectively spitting on the idea that spreading knowledge is a good thing (also called “marketing” in some circles), and less surprisingly, it’s putting short-term tactics ahead of long-term strategy. Of course, that’s a philosophical argument that’s not worth having when library budgets are being slashed left and right, and school librarians have to do petition drives to demonstrate their value to the powers that be. Publishers aren’t operating in a vacuum.


Since publishers are so concerned with the “perpetuity of lending and simultaneity of availability” of their ebooks, I have to wonder if libraries shouldn’t just help them out and hit the STOP button themselves?

Stop buying ebooks across the board, at any price, under any terms. Let publishers fight it out with Amazon, and when the dust finally settles (it will) and a viable business model appears (maybe), begin negotiating anew, on solid ground, with whomever’s left standing.

In the meantime, libraries can redirect those precious resources and finances being flagged for ebooks towards more tangible initiatives in their respective communities.

Surely every library has a service gap or three to fill that’s more valuable than overpaying for temporary licenses to files and platforms they don’t own, that may or may not work on their patrons’ devices of choice, and whose pricing can fluctuate more wildly than that of crude oil and Netflix stock.

Is it the belief that without ebooks, libraries will seem irrelevant and antiquated? Should every library be expected to offer the same range of services as, say, NYPL?

My little local library doesn’t currently offer ebooks, but they have a decent children’s library and a variety of useful services that I’d argue are far more valuable to our community, and improving any of those things would rank much higher on my list than ebooks.

NJ librarian (and 2010 Library Journal Mover & Shaker) Andy Woodworth has some great suggestions for “Alternative Uses for the Pesky eBook Budget,” including my favorite:

Build Something Cool! Like a Digital Media Lab. Or a recording studio. Perhaps not those things specifically, but something that reflects the needs of the community on a larger scale. These two examples represent something that people generally don’t have in their own homes but are useful for their interests or hobbies. It doesn’t have to be elaborate; it just has to serve a need that currently isn’t being met.

As publishers and libraries seek to reinvent themselves for the digital age, the opportunities are so much bigger than ebooks, and it kills me to see the energy, passion, and resources that are being spent focusing on such a narrow piece of the big picture.

With all that’s possible, is this really the best we can do?

5 thoughts on “Ebooks and Libraries: Is it Worth the Effort?

  1. Right on, Guy! Putting the onus on libraries to gather market analysis data for the publishers seems absurd. Also absurd is the amount of time and energy that has gone into this struggle already – and it is in its infancy!
    Libraries are partners with publishers and long have been so – where is this partnership now? Has positive symbiosis devolved into arguments narrower and narrower in scope? How to elevate the conversations? This post is a good start! Thanks!

  2. Sure it is. There are plenty of ebooks that are creative commons and in the public domain. Libraries end up finding this kind of material all the time.

    Things are still very early. Plus there are some interesting projects like Gluejar http://gluejar.com/ and other possible models for distributing ebooks like Freader.

  3. You make some great points, but I think your conclusion is wrong. Libraries run the risk of becoming irrelevant as providers of literature and information if they ignore e-books until the market shakes out into something that makes sense. I agree that the model they have with services like Overdrive is somewhat problematic, more of a lease than ownership, and I agree that traditional publishers have been unreasonable here, but e-book lending is an extremely high growth, high use area for my library system. And speaking as a library trustee, I think we would be abdicating our responsibility to our patrons if we avoided all investment in e-books, just as it would have constituted a failure to serve our patrons if we’d decided to ignore VCR tapes and DVDs because of issues with those formats.
    Personally (speaking as an author as well as a trustee) I’d love to see a system like many Europeans have, in which libraries automatically get all electronic titles, with the author and publisher earning modest royalties based on how often their stuff is lent out. Perhaps it’s not terribly workable in a widely decentralized system like ours, but it makes a lot of sense.

  4. Guy makes great points and his conclusions are right.
    Libraries will become irrelevant as providers of literature.
    Literature will go the same way as music. Globally availale at affordable prices directly from publishers or artists themselves. There are many other community services, that are not easily available to many people a library could invest in, just like Guy is suggesting.

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