Amazon Unlimited

Last week, Amazon launched their new Kindle Unlimited service—$10 a month for unlimited ebook & e-audiobook loans direct through Amazon.

American Libraries Magazine wrote a reaction piece about it:

  • Amazon Unlimited by James LaRue (posted on American Libraries on July 18, 2014)

And Forbes posted this deliberately provocative op-ed piece:

A Google search turns up many more blogs and opinion pieces from librarians reacting to this. As one might expect, the Forbes post generated a tremendous hue-and-cry.

I might be the only librarian I know who isn’t worried about this. It’s just an ebook program. This doesn’t offer any of the social and community service programs that libraries offer: education assistance, literacy initiatives, job search and entrepreneurship resources. It doesn’t offer print books (which is still what most people choose to read).

Libraries are far more than just books—and certainly far more than just ebooks. Libraries are services and community hubs. To get up in arms about something like this is to completely misrepresent what libraries truly are and can be.

For that matter, maybe it’s a good thing to let Amazon handle people’s popular fiction needs. Let them deal with it and free up budget and staff time for libraries to focus on other programs and services.

Mostly, though, I believe that the people who are going to buy into this service already go to Amazon for most of their ebooks. This isn’t new—people come to the library, get frustrated by the sheer hassle of our byzantinely complex ebook lending systems (which are the only things available to us to offer our patrons thanks to publisher restrictions), get frustrated when they have to put something on hold and wait for it… Many people already just give up and go to Amazon to get it—no muss, no fuss, immediate gratification.

I don’t see this new service stealing readers that Amazon doesn’t already have. It’s a service designed to appeal to people who already use Amazon extensively. I just don’t see this being a game-changer.

Consider Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science—amongst the first things I learned in my MLIS program:

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every reader his or her book.
  3. Every book its reader.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. The library is a growing organism.

It boils down to this: The right book, the right reader, the right time, as hassle-free as possible.

When it comes to ebooks, Amazon has the potential to fulfill this mission better than many libraries. Amazon has a larger collection of ebooks than any library system that I know of, they have no limit on the number of copies of a title they can loan out simultaneously (no holds, no waiting), and direct loans through Amazon are much easier for the borrower than most library ebook lending systems.

One obvious advantage a library has is that it’s free. Given the economic realities of many communities, this is a huge advantage. On the other hand, if modern life has taught us nothing else it’s that people are will to pay a surprising amount for convenience.

The real advantages a library has are that libraries are local, and libraries are more than just books. Libraries are part of a community. Amazon has no hope of occupying the many roles that libraries do.

In the end, I have to believe that when it comes to reading—for both individuals and community-wide—things aren’t zero-sum. The more options people have to connect to the written word, the better. The stronger our culture of reading is as a whole, the healthier each component of that culture will be. Libraries promote reading. Amazon promotes reading. This is a good thing. I want all members of my community to have as many options as possible to connect to the right book at the right time. This doesn’t have to be a competition.

I know that it is a competition, unfortunately, because popular perception of libraries has a profound impact on library funding. But that’s all the more reason for us to spin this story in more productive ways than I’m currently seeing. It’s all the more reason for us not to get riled up by intentionally provocative, click-baity articles like the Forbes piece.

What I take away from all this is the imperative for libraries—here and now—to focus on all the things we do that Amazon doesn’t. The services and resources we can offer our communities at a local level that Amazon can’t.

Let Amazon have the pop-fic ebook readers. The library’s mission is far larger than that.

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