eBooks – Is Now The Time?

For some time now there has been a discussion about whether public libraries should offer ebooks or not.  As more and more services offer them to their users, the answer appears to be ‘yes’.  Yet there seems to be some resistance to their introduction – particularly by library campaigners, which seems very curious to me.  A recent post on the Good Library Blog was particularly intriguing.  Despite often being told by library campaigners that librarians do not ‘listen to the needs of their users’, when librarians do try to meet the needs of their users by introducing a service that many users have requested, they are politely told to ignore them.  I’m not really sure why this double-standard should apply.  Either we meet the needs of our users or we do not.  We can’t say that on the one hand we should meet their needs and listen to their requests whilst also deciding that we know best.  It is rather bizarre that it is acceptable for library campaigners to ignore users, whilst librarians are lambasted for it.

What makes this position all the more curious is that the needs of the private sector should apparently be taken into consideration:

Nor is anyone hearing the voice of Booksellers – who just plain don’t want public libraries to offer for nothing that out of which they try to make their living.

This is a very strange position.  Why should we concern ourselves with that?  Our primary concern should be meeting the needs of our users, not fear of upsetting the private sector.  Besides, don’t public libraries already offer books for nothing – from which booksellers try to make their living?  There are a number of other points that are made that display a fundamental lack of knowledge of the technology.  This is of very great concern.  Librarians are involved in the discussions about ebooks, they understand the developments and what they mean for the service.  Consequently, it seems daft to me that non-librarians who do not understand the technology should be trying to drive policy in this area.  I’m all for ‘outsiders’ getting involved in defending the library service, but they should know their limitations and, where these limitations are apparent, work with professionals who do understand developments.  To do otherwise could damage the service beyond redemption – something neither party desires (one would hope).

Anyway, for me the answer is clear: now is most definitely the time.  With access of library websites growing at a fast rate (50% year on year increase last year), there is a fantastic opportunity to take advantage of the new ways people are interacting with the service.  If people are logging onto the library catalogue to use online resources, renew books and make reservations, why not offer them texts that they can download there and then?  The growth of website access presents a tremendous opportunity for libraries.  An opportunity to expand digital collections and provide new services for users.  Librarians are prepared to rise to the challenge (many libraries already have) and meet the changing needs of their users.  The question is, are the library campaigners?  Or do they simply want libraries to reflect solely what they think is best?  One hopes it is the former.

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6 thoughts on “eBooks – Is Now The Time?

  1. This is a big subject worthy of a brief dissertation, I ain’t got the time though. With change we lose some values but gain others. And this is a big change. So a lot of values are changing. However a few points off the top of my head. Some publishers (a few) are now only publishing e-books, e.g. a niche publisher finds there is a much bigger market on the Internet for the books than there is in bookshops. If it is the mission of the libraries to make the World’s Literary Arts available to people then this is a concern. Similarly how do libraries factor in self-publishing nowadays, something we are seeing a lot more of.

    On the subject of needs. Now needs I see as the right side of the equation when we are talking about our values. My own library authority recently carried out a survey on self-service points and found that essentially the younger a person was the more enthusiastic they were and the older the less. Now this is peoples’ values. We should respect peoples’ values. After all it’s all they’ve got to go on. Libraries can legitimately ask people to consider other values. But at the end of the day the libraries and staff are there to serve the public. I found myself discussing e-books with a patron a while back and saying that as long as the values of the people in a community are for paper books then the library will provide them. I hope at least this is the policy! As to my own values, I was replying to a post a while back at 2 am in the morning and arrived at a point where I wanted to refer back to a library book I had read (an expensive Facet book). It would have been so nice to have been able to check the e-book out (there was an e-book edition) of say the British Library (a sort of long distance instant ILL ;)

  2. On the topic of the issue of libraries making books available for free and what publishers and writers think of this, there are some articles on the subject in this collection of links:

    http://libraryweb.info/articledir.php#129

    Haven’t time to pick out the relevant ones, but the issues are there. Authors on the whole like libraries, publishers also recognise they increase book sales. I must admit I buy a lot more music nowadays after listening to it on Spotify especially since it is only one click away. and can be bought a track at a time also (could poets sell their poetry a poem at a time!).

    Again anyway the values are complex here, and have never I don’t think been fully worked out.

    G.

  3. I completely agree Ian, in fact I just posted on my own blog about ebooks in public libraries. I think that it is still early days for the eBook industry, but it is certainly thriving. As librarians, we need to stay one step ahead of the game and predict trends and one of these is eBooks. Whilst people may not be vocally saying ‘I want libraries to provide eBooks now’, if we don’t, by the time they do say it, it will be too late for us. eBooks are an opportunity public libraries can’t ignore.

  4. Sounds like the campaigners are a lot like politicians who also claim “they know whats best”. Fact is, if they don’t change to accomodate the needs of their users and follow the trends of the industry, they’ll suffer from it in the long run. Great post. And I hope that libraries will start offering ebooks to the public. It will help our industry immensely. Dave

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