Public Libraries & E-Book Collections – Exactly Who Is This Serving?

"We're very 'Green' here.
The library's e-book collection is actually powered
by incinerating all those books behind you."
I look around my desk at work and I tick off all the technology I have in front of me.
  • Desktop PC w/side-by-side monitors … check
  • smart phone … check
  • iPad … check
  • e-book reader … check
  • laptop in travel bag … check
  • scanner … check
  • teleconferencing camera w/built in mic and speakers … check
  • multi-line telephone system with headset and hands-free capability … check
If access to technology were a tax bracket, I’d definitely be in that upper 2% range.

I also have a public library card in my wallet, and my username and password stored on my individually Wi-Fi enabled devices that allow me to connect to the wealth of resources that are available through my public library. Quite frankly, I’m a great consumer for my local library system and they are happy that I’m taking advantage of the resources they are providing to customers like myself. Although I am a great customer, I would not say that I am the typical customer of the public library. In fact, I would say that I am probably a tiny percentage of the overall customer base of a public library. The typical person that walks into a public library is lucky if he or she owns one of these items. Yet, if you’ve attended any online library seminars lately, you might think that everyone has a Kindle or an iPad or a smart phone … and that makes me worry a little.

A couple weeks ago, I followed the twitter hash tag (#ebooksummit) associated with the Library Journal’s virtual summit called “ebooks … Libraries @ the Tipping Point” and I became a little concerned that one comment that Eli Neiberger made in the opening session was getting retweeted a lot:
#ebooksummit — Nice quote from Eli Neiberger: “Libraries are screwed”
Oh joy … glad the audience grabbed a hold of that quote and put it out for the Twitterverse to see. Neiberger was discussing the issue of publishers moving from “ownership” (where libraries buy and own the books in their collections), to “access” (where libraries purchase licenses to use online materials, but they do not actually own the material.) This isn’t a new concept, but it is one that more and more libraries are looking at recently because with “access” you can typically have a larger collection for less money. In a time where public libraries are the “low hanging fruit” of a city or county looking to cut expenses, the “access” model looks good … at least on the surface. Once you’re locked into one of these access models, however, this is where the “libraries are screwed” comment comes into play.

Putting aside the “access v. ownership” issues, I found that many of the attendees at the virtual conference seemed to think that ebooks were absolutely the wave of the future for public libraries, and a general assumption that the community that the libraries served would eventually own their own e-reader (Kindle, Nook, Sony, etc) and that libraries had better get on board now, or they will get left behind in this ebook revolution. This is when I chimed in via Twitter and asked if this transition from libraries shelving books to a scenario where libraries have a majority of their collection available only through ebooks was really what libraries should be doing. 

According to a Harris Poll, 80% of adults said they had no plans to ever buy an e-reader. I even put out a link to the Forbes blog post that discusses this issue of e-readers out to the attendees to see why they could justify the transition from book collections to e-collections when only a fifth of the adults said they would even consider buying the devices needed to access that collection. I got two generic responses:
1. “It’s not for the adults … we’re making this transition for the children who love e-books.”
2. “Yes, only 1/5th will buy e-readers … the rest will read the books on their smart phones.”
After I removed my palm from my forehead, I mentioned that according to the same survey that said that only a 20% of adults planned on buying an e-reader, that number only goes up slightly (25%) when you asked 15 to 17 year olds if they ever plan to own an e-reader. If you go down to the 6 to 8 year olds, you finally get to a group where more than half “enjoy reading ebooks.” 

As for the “they’ll read them on their smart phones”, the percentages drop even further for this reasoning. According to a Forrester research survey, 82% of Americans own a cell phone, but only 17% of American own a smart phone. Even I had to look at that number twice … 17%?? That’s all?? I looked around my office last week and noticed that almost everyone had a smart phone holstered to their belts or clipped to their purse straps. When I looked around on the bus that I take to work, however, I realized that most of the people on the bus that had a cell phone, had a basic Nokia phone, and the most advanced thing they did with this was use it to place SMS text messages. 

I know that it is easy to fall into the belief that everyone will eventually get an e-reader, or some other device that will allow them to access a public library's electronic collection, but the anecdotal evidence that I'm seeing seem to point in the direction that only about a third of Americans will eventually have the resources to take advantage of these types of collections. Ask yourself these questions … how many of that 1/3rd are actually customers of their local public libraries? How many of the people that use and need the resources of the public library are going to benefit from the access to e-collections, versus the number that will see their true access to the collection actually diminish?

There is a saying that we use around here (generally when our Internet connection goes down, or the teleconference software stops in the middle of a presentation): "Technology Is Great … When It Works!" It is important to know that library collections are only "great" when the consumer that uses the library can actually use it. I hope that public libraries don't loose sight of this in their attempt to transition to electronic collections. 

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Richard Gadsden said...

Aren't your public libraries buying e-readers themselves to loan out the reader as well as the book?

I know several here in the UK are

Greg Lambert said...


Yes, some libraries are doing exactly that. Here's a sample from Vermont (with a sample "Kindle Contract")
If libraries do plan on having sufficient supplies of e-readers available, and they can get around the Digital Rights Management issues from the individual vendors, and can maintain the e-readers as they go in and out of the library – then the transition might work. However, supplying enough of the readers, and getting over the DRM and vendor issues is a huge hurdle to jump over.
All of these hurdles tends to bring us back to the "Libraries are screwed" statement.


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