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Ebooks and Libraries: A Stream of Concerns

Posted by Editor on January 18, 2011

fr0m Meredith Farkas – , January 18, 2011

I really like eBooks, which is something that surprised me when I won my Kindle last Spring in a raffle. In fact, just about every book I’ve read since then has been on my Kindle or occasionally on my husband’s iPad (I greatly prefer reading on the Kindle). When I first assumed I would hate reading ebooks, I’d based it on the experiences I’d had reading books on my computer through academic platforms like NetLibrary and eBrary. Reading on the Kindle is nothing like that – the absence of a glossy backlit screen is key for me. And the consumer ebook market seems to have exploded in just the past six months, even for those who are far from early adopters. When my dad got a Kindle in September I knew eBook readers had arrived. Even at Norwich I’m starting to get inquiries from patrons about whether they can read ebooks from the library on their mobile devices. There’s no doubt at this point: Ebooks do have a real place in the future of reading. Unfortunately, the way most people are using eBooks at this point completely bypasses the library, and this is what publishers and ebook manufacturers seem to want. Why wouldn’t they?

And the options that libraries now have for ebooks (in terms of content, interface, interoperability, etc.) are, by and large, piss-poor. I am deeply concerned about the fact that many libraries are increasing their collections of ebooks to the point where a huge chunk of their collection development purchases are ebooks. They provide a compelling model. In many cases, multiple students can read the same book at once. The books take less time and effort in terms of processing and take up no physical space at all. But the negatives, the uncertainties of where the ebook market is headed, and the current restrictions most ebook vendors have placed on their products often outweigh the benefits. That doesn’t mean we can bury our heads in the sand and ignore this huge trend, but I also agree strongly with Eli Neiburger at the Library Journal eBook Summit that libraries are screwed (watch his presentation from the Summit here and here).

This post is basically a stream of consciousness outline of some of the concerns that have been swirling around in my head regarding eBooks. I am far from an ebook expert. I don’t read contracts from vendors and I don’t know the ins and outs of the ebook market, DRM, first sale doctrine, etc. I’m just someone in charge of collection development for our largest School who realizes how little most librarians know about what we’re getting into with ebooks (me included) and who is really concerned about where things are going. If you want to hear about eBooks from people with deeper knowledge of the subject, here are a few people I can recommend: Sue Polanka, Jason Griffey, Eric Hellman and Tom Peters.

There are differences between eBooks for individuals and eBooks for libraries to lend

Buying a physical book versus checking it out from the library are not radically different processes. Both have very small barriers (leaving the house to get a library book or buy a book at a bookstore vs. waiting at least a day or more to get a book purchased online). Getting an eBook on my kindle is ridiculously simple. Click on the order button and it’s there. Heck, I can even preview part of the first chapter for fee to see if I want to buy it! And for the average person who just wants to read a book and be done with it, they don’t care about it working on other devices, any restrictions on lending, etc. Getting an eBook from a library is often a circuitous and confusing process; so confusing that libraries have to create tutorials on how to do it. This doesn’t even take into account the myriad interoperability issues when patrons want to actually read a library ebook on their mobile/ereader device. And the fact that libraries often can’t get eBook packages/options that provide the content our patrons want (especially in academic libraries). The worst part is that I can’t see this getting better in the future when it makes no financial sense for Amazon, B&N, Sony, etc. to make it easy for libraries to get and provide this content to their patrons. If the e-reader providers largely control the market for eBooks, libraries will be aced out.

What about ILL?

Interlibrary loan is an important part of what we do. Many consortia have cooperative collection development agreements where they will not duplicate collections and can borrow from each other. What does that mean when what they’re buying are ebooks? Only a small number of ebook vendors (actually, Springer is the only one I know of) allow for any sort of ILL, which means that the more our book collections go digital, the less we will be able to loan to other libraries or borrow from other libraries. That libraries are going in this direction without considering the impact on ILL are really shooting ourselves, our patrons, our profession, in the foot. Just try to imagine your library without interlibrary loan. I know I can’t.



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