According to a 2010 Perceptions of Libraries study from OCLC, books remain the brand of the public library.1 Simply put, when people surveyed for the study think of the public library, they think book. The number is actually increasing. In 2010, 75 percent of Americans associated libraries with books, up from 69 percent in 2005.2 The study also points out that e-books are books.
While it’s true that e-books are books, it’s also true that e-books are not books. The comparison and contrast––and ultimately the paradox––is reminiscent of a Zen kōan (or saying) which is sometimes used to find a truth by juxtaposing two confounding statements. And like a kōan, exploring the paradox can be helpful in determining the truth about e-books, and the public library’s new role in this rapidly shifting world of content where, for the sake of profit, form and function appear intermingled but are really separate things.
This broadening of the definition of book complicates one of the primary functions of the public library, which is connecting people to information, education, and enrichment (mostly in the form of books) at no direct cost to the seeker as a taxfunded public good.
What happens when this primary function undergoes a dramatic shift, especially when it’s not driven by the library, but by the marketplace? We’re living it right now.
A physical book is mostly one thing––a near-perfect technology to deliver the printed word. When information was mostly print, libraries developed the methods and practices to find the good stuff and organize it in ways that makes efficient use of space and makes that good stuff easy to find. Working with the simplicity of a single physical format, libraries created a fairly complex and effective structure to select, collect, curate, and distribute physical materials. The book remains unchanged for its entire lifecycle, which for many libraries is a fairly long time. Eventually, the book wears out, or is weeded. Otherwise it doesn’t change. Further, libraries buy (and own) physical materials and loan them to people, with few restrictions. When you own books, the details of loaning are your choice.
E-books are mostly many things. It’s helpful to remember that when a book is an e-book, the physical form and the function become two separate things, despite the appearance that they are one.
The core content is text, stored electronically, and accessed electronically. To read (access might be a better term), you need electricity, a piece of hardware (like an e-reader), an operating system, power, and connectivity. The content is (mostly) not owned by a library, but leased for a period of time.
Libraries can buy and loan e-readers, of course, but they are different beasts. Despite the fact that a single device can hold many licensed e-books, the devices can be costly compared to physical books. Since they are designed with a single user in mind they can be troublesome to configure in a multi-user environment. The content pretty much stays the same, but the hardware (with its ongoing obsolescence cycle) runs in and out of our lives at a brisk pace. Case in point: How many times have many of us bought the Beatles The White Album? Original vinyl; reissued vinyl; 8-track; cassette; CD; remastered CD (you know, because the sound on that first CD edition was really terrible); and now in games like Rock Band. The format changed; the content pretty much remained the same.
To the consumer or library patron, an e-reader is a cool, handy device to access and read books. To the vendor (including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and others) an e-reader is primarily a personal, mobile storefront for their wares (just try configuring your new e-reader without setting up an account and sharing your billing information––you won’t get far). It’s in this way that the physical form (e-reader) and content (e-book) can appear as a single thing––but the relationship between the two is created to help a company prosper in the market. Add to it that only certain titles are available on certain platforms, circulating e-readers in a public library starts becoming complex quickly.
It’s no wonder that libraries are grappling with e-books. Libraries are experts in managing physical books. E-books are really nothing like physical books, and the tools we have are not adequate to deal with them.
Libraries have been mostly in the backseat on this wild-ride shift to digital materials. The public is showing its love for the new book format. Sales of e-books from vendors such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble are beginning to outstrip the sales of physical books. E-books make great sense in the marketplace. While the creative process to make a good book will always require a substantial investment of blood, sweat, and tears, the storage and distribution of e-books takes relatively tiny resources in comparison to physical materials. Less overhead means more profit. The writing has been on the wall for some time, but now it’s in indelible ink: Electronic publishing is here to stay.
The public library marketplace for e-books, on the other hand, is dismal. Libraries are reporting astronomical increases in e-book checkouts (reflecting the commercial marketplace, patrons are showing love for library e-books), but when we look closer the numbers appear to be much like an increasingly growing fish in a tiny pond. Libraries literally have less than a handful of viable options to lease, buy, or facilitate e-books for patrons. With so few options, most libraries I’ve spoken to feel over a barrel. So much for the library brand being books. What if we can’t get the e-books we need to serve our communities and our role?
Not only do libraries have few solutions for e-books, but the ones we have are imperfect. I’m grateful for the options we do have. Bless you OverDrive, 3M, Net Library, and libraries like Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries and others who have waded through the murky licensing waters to make it possible––at all––for libraries to obtain e-books to lend to patrons. At the same time, librarians and techs know that current e-book solutions are mostly difficult for patrons to use. In stark contrast to physical materials, it’s often easier to purchase an e-book than it is to borrow one from the library. It’s a dark joke that underscores another shift.
The shift to digital is sometimes accompanied by talk about the relevance (or perceived lack thereof) of the public library in the modern age. The attack isn’t necessarily new, but if books (including ebooks) are our brand, and if we can’t get books in the same manner as we can now, for the first time ever the critics have some credible fuel for their fire.
As libraries, we wring our hands every time someone who should know better questions the relevance or purpose of the library. When OverDrive announced future support for Amazon’s Kindle e-reader in spring of 2011, CNET Senior Technology Editor Brian Cooley seemed surprised that libraries were needed at all.3 In fall 2011, comedian and political commentator Bill Maher (in an interchange with Penn Jillette) said “We have the Internet. We don’t need a library at all.”4
Of course, the library community was quick to react. Were either one really serious? Who knows. Shouldn’t these two know better? Perhaps. But if they don’t, where does the blame lie? I recently had my own mini-crisis considering the relevance of the library, thanks to a bright shiny technology object with a black apple on the back of the case.
I remember how I felt the first time I picked up an iPad. With access to e-books, music, spoken word, movies, television shows, specialized (and educational) apps, the Internet, and more, I had a terrible, horrible thought.
“If I have an iPad, why do I need a library?”
This thought is one that many are having. If you work in libraries, it’s probably just a fleeting thought. After all, public libraries serve the public good. I love technology and the cool, vital things a competitive market brings us. I also know that there is a unique value in how the library removes commerce from the equation –– no direct dollars change hands for the information. Tax dollars do the heavy budgetary lifting.
If you don’t work in a library, the answer might not be so apparent. When Cooley and Maher question libraries, the part of me not getting miffed begins to really understand how they might feel that way. I could pat myself on the back for taking an enlightened approach to the conflict, but it really doesn’t make me feel any better. In fact, it makes me realize just how enormous the issue is, and what is really at stake. This isn’t about libraries or librarians getting respect, or even about jobs. This is about how market forces could, perhaps unknowingly and without malice, wipe out the public good served by libraries.
I believe the purpose of the library transcends physical formats. In practice, in our rapidly changing world, our purpose must transcend any format that information comes in. For a moment, consider the (terrible, horrible) possibility that libraries are not able to get physical books like we have in the past, and that the majority of adult titles shift to digital. What if we still only have less than a handful of imperfect choices to lease and loan to patrons. Are we still a library?
It’s time to examine our missions in this new world of content. Books are our current brand, but in a world that is shifting to electronic forms, and to fulfill our public good role, our brand needs to change. I would love our brand to be “access to the resources and tools in an ever-changing world.” That means access to e-everything, including the tools and training needed for content creation, and in physical spaces. Places to gather and discuss ideas. Places to learn, and places to teach.
Knowing how to go forward isn’t a snap. Too much is changing in too many places. Our organized efforts, from adhoc groups to professional associations, are feeling the strain. By the time the membership understands the nature of the problem, the problem itself has sometimes changed. Al Franken, in his campaign against net-neutrality legislation, spoke to a group of techs at the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference and urged them to use the Internet to save the Internet.5 In that same manner, I believe we can save libraries with libraries––but only if we know where we’ve been, what’s happening now, and how to retool libraries to take them where we want them to go.
- OCLC, Perceptions of Libraries, 2010: Context and Community (Dublin, Ohio: OCLC, 2010), accessed Jan. 30, 2012.
- OCLC, Perceptions of Libraries, accessed Jan. 30, 2012.
- “CNET Editor: ‘The Library? How Quaint!’” LISNews blog, Apr. 23, 2011, accessed Feb. 7, 2012, .
- “Bill Maher Doesn’t Like The Library,” YouTube video, 0:59, posted on LISNews blog, Nov. 11, 2011, accessed Feb. 7, 2012.
- “Sen. Al Franken to Introduce Net Neutrality Bill,” YouTube video, 1:54, posted on Save the Internet, accessed Jan. 30, 2012.