Libraries & Third Party eContent Services

It’s self-evident that more and more library content is being delivered digitally – ebooks, emagazines, digital movies and TV shows, digital music, databases. It’s even more self-evident to point out that many of the third party econtent services to which libraries subscribe suck in some truly horrendous ways. Sometimes the content is bad, or the selection is too limited, or the user interface is frustratingly complicated and unfriendly. (It’s frequently a combination of these.)

Few of these services – if any – live up to the expectations we have for them, or the standards we set for non-econtent library services. Third party econtent subscription services always seem to make us feel like we’re compromising too much.

From what I can see, when it comes to econtent services, opinion amongst library professionals gets divided into two camps:

  1. Those who believe that services that aren’t good enough are still better than nothing when it comes to offering patrons what they want.
  2. Those who believe that it’s far worse to provide a not-good-enough service than none at all.

In the last year, I’ve flip-flopped between these two camps more than a few times.

In March of 2012, Bobbi Newman suggested that libraries should stop providing ebooks if ebook services can’t meet our standards for selection and access. At the time, my response to this idea was unequivocal disagreement.

Since then, I’ve changed my mind. I more-or-less found myself won over to the belief that libraries would do better – and our patrons would be better served – if we devote our limited time and resources to services at which we can truly excel, rather than throwing it away on services that can’t be better than not good enough. I have tremendous sympathy for this argument. And there are plenty of other library services that could use more resources!

This perspective particularly resonates within the larger argument of whether or not libraries should focus so many of their resources on popular entertainment in the first place.

Recently, my library has been reassessing some of our electronic resources and considering the addition of some of the newly available emagazine and digital media streaming services for libraries. Some of my colleagues are understandably wary of signing on to these new services because their content is limited and their user interfaces aren’t always as friendly as we’d like.

So, once again, I find myself asking what I consider to be the essential question facing modern digital librarianship:

eContent Twitter Exchange

As you can see from this exchange, I’m swinging back to the idea that I first expressed in my response to Ms. Newman’s post from last year:

If enough of our patrons are actively asking us for these services, then we have an obligation to try and supply them.

Someone suggested to me recently that a distinction needs to be made between the moral concerns that attend upon these services, design & implementation concerns, and concerns over the quality of the content being offered.

If it’s a moral or ethical issue – if the service requires libraries to agree to terms which violate patron privacy, for example, or if they enforce an egregious violation of Fair Use freedoms – then we have substantial grounds to forgo that service, regardless of the quality and quantity of the content offered, even in the face of patron demand for that content.

If it’s a matter of services being designed and implemented less-than-perfectly, well… It may never be perfect, and in the meantime we’re denying our patrons access to a service that they want and would fulfill a legitimate need. It all rather depends on how badly designed it is.

Sometimes you have a service whose content is just terrible. In such a case, the decision is easy – it’s one of the oldest functions of a library to collect the best information resources for a community and sort out the dross.

And sometimes issues originate as immoral restrictions imposed by publishers but which manifest in the patron interface as content or implementation problems…

And limited content isn’t the same as bad content…

I think by now most library patrons realize that limited content and annoying interface designs aren’t the fault of libraries. I don’t think they hold it against us when we offer services that suffer from these issues. I know that some patrons appreciate that we’re at least trying to give them something.

(To give credit where credit is due – many of the major ebook vendors on the market have made tremendous improvements to their user-interfaces in the past year. This particular problem seems to be resolving nicely. **knock on wood**)

But if patrons ask us for services and we choose not to provide anything at all – they will blame us for that. Without a strong moral justification for it, forgoing to provide econtent when patrons tell us they want it presents a tremendous risk of turning patron opinion against us.

In March of 2012, I saw stats that suggested only 16% of public library patrons accessed ebooks via their library (which doesn’t necessarily mean that only 16% wanted access…) At only 16%, it wasn’t the most pressing issue we faced. But that percentage has gone up in the intervening year, and will keep going up, and this issue now extends beyond ebooks to encompass emags, movies, TV, and music.

More than ever, and for the foreseeable future, this is the most important question facing digital library services:

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

Some of us may see a clear answer. Some of us may flip-flop. For some, the answer may vary depending on the specific service, the specific provider, or the vagaries of the particular community we serve.

I don’t want to suggest that there even is a right answer, or that my (non)answer should hold sway with anyone. I just want to encourage all librarians to ask this question of themselves and debate it between each other, and with the patron community they serve.

Someday, I hope I manage to finally figure out where I stand on this issue.

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