Libraries & eBooks

[NOTE: This is a piece I originally posted on Facebook on March 23, 2012. It’s already somewhat dated, even only a year later, but I want it to live on my blog here because it addresses an issue that I believe is still, and will continue to be, one of the central questions librarians face in a world where more and more of our content is being delivered digitally via third party services.]

Is not good enough better or worse than nothing at all?

March 23, 2012 — There’s been an idea bouncing around the library community regarding how we handle ebooks. Namely, some of us are beginning to think that maybe libraries should completely pull out of the ebook market for the time being.

Please read this blog post from Bobbi Newman. She makes a very compelling argument:

Should Libraries Get Out of the eBook Business?

We try so hard to implement ebook services for our users – and they don’t work, they’re confusing, convoluted, frustrating. We fight with the Big Publishers for access and get rebuffed over and over again. We dedicate time, effort, and resources to try to make these services work for our patrons… and we fail. With the resources currently available to libraries, it’s a Sisyphean task.

The reality is that ebooks represent a very small percentage of library services. We’re devoting far more time and resources to it than this piece of the library pie deserves. Better to put that energy into more important services and wait until ebooks have gotten past their worst growing pains, when we can be assured of offering our users something reliable and useful.

Better to spend time and effort to deliver a product that can excel than one which can never be more than not good enough.

This math works, this argument makes sense.

And I completely disagree with it. I think it would be a huge mistake for libraries to leave the ebook market right now.

Consider what might happen if libraries did drop ebooks:

We’d be walking away from our best chance to play a real role in determining the direction of ebook development. We’d be giving up our say in hammering out better distribution agreements with publishers. Sure, libraries would still sit down at a table with publishing houses and try to get them to understand the value of fair use – but without libraries demanding better access through active use, and backing that up with documented patron demand, we’d have no real leverage to negotiate and publishers would know it. Why would they listen to us if we show them that we’ll walk away when the going gets tough? Why would they listen to us if we’re not paying customers anymore? If we walk away from ebooks now, we relegate ourselves to a largely passive role in the development of the technology and establishment of access.

One of the most powerful things libraries can do now in dealing with publishers is to provide data to show them that lending ebooks drives ebook sales, just as we’ve always done for print. We can’t gather than data if we don’t lend ebooks. One of the other things we can do is show publishers how their unfair and not-good-enough services to libraries rebound against them and their reputation with book buyers.

eBooks – and, more importantly, the as-yet unforeseen technologies for which ebooks will be a progenitor – will only become more important and ubiquitous in the future of information access. What would it say about libraries if we walked away from them now?

It would say to people that we don’t care about the future of information access. It would say that we can’t be bothered. It would reinforce the perception of libraries as outmoded institutions, mired in old-fashioned routines and unwilling to adapt.

All of this is fundamentally untrue – but that wouldn’t matter because that’s not how people would perceive it. Instead of seeing libraries right there in the thick of it, working to find the best path, people would only see us standing aside.

If we walk away from ebooks now, it makes us irrelevant. Regardless of all the other essential services we offer, this is the perception that will stick in popular consciousness.

We cannot afford that.

Do we need to be much more strategic about how we dedicate our resources to ebook systems that just aren’t good enough?

Absolutely.

But for me, this is primarily an issue of perception. Right now, something like only 16% of public library patrons get ebooks through their libraries. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that only 16% of our patrons want ebooks – many more patrons probably do want ebooks through us, but they get so frustrated with the byzantine access systems that they give up. For those patrons, what will it say to them if we stop offering ebooks completely? No matter how we explain the rational and tell them that we’re still fighting to get better ebook access for them, it will never be the same as showing them, through our actions, that we’re fighting for it.

It reminds me of a critique I once heard about voter abstention during elections: No one can tell the difference between the silence of protest and the silence of apathy. It’s all just silence and it says… nothing.

If our patrons don’t see us offering ebooks, they won’t see us fighting to make that access better. Offering nothing is just that – nothing. It gives them nothing, it shows them nothing.

I can’t help but to believe that this is far worse than offering them ebook services that aren’t good enough.

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