E-Books in Public Libraries

Having written about my lust for an e-book reader in a previous post, I thought I ought to devote a more substantial post to the merits of e-books in public libraries.  I have to say from the outset, that I am a great believer in e-books in public libraries and I sincerely believe that they should not be restricted to academic libraries (where they are pretty much commonplace).  However, is it really the case that public libraries must develop their e-book capability?

To a certain degree, e-books are already available in almost all public libraries in one form or another.  Many library authorities already have subscriptions to a number of online resources such as the Encyclopaedia Brittanica and the Dictionary of National Biography.  However, although these resources are available to read with an internet connection, they are not fully formed e-books.  Library users are not able to download the resources onto a personal e-reader.  Instead, these resources are available merely as reference materials that the user can refer to.  E-books are different as they can be downloaded and stored onto a digital storage device for the user’s convenience.  That said, these resources do provide library authorities with an indication as to how successful e-books are likely to be.  Once the general public are comfortable using these resources to access information rather than their paper counterparts, it is only a small step towards the standard e-book format.

Certainly it would appear that the foundations are in place.  Although many library authorities have seen an overall decline in book issues, library websites have seen a massive increase in usage.  This is in part due to the increased functionality of many of these websites.  Users can search catalogues, reserve books and refer to online resources through their authority’s portal.  As more users connect remotely to their library service, so grows the opportunity to take advantage of this shift in user’s habits.  Adding online services seems a natural progression given how the way library services are utilised has now changed.  And the biggest online development that could be offered to the library card holder is e-books.

E-books can play a very important role in bringing members of the public closer to their service.  This may sound a little odd.  After all, encouraging people to say at home and access services online would appear to isolate the user even further from their service.  However, for many members of the public, visiting the library is simply not possible.  Housebound borrowers are one group that could potentially benefit from the development of e-books.  Those that reside in rural areas that are miles away from their nearest library would also benefit from the availability of e-books.  This is not to say that the introduction of e-books would instantly solve the problem.  There are various other issues that need to be resolved beforehand.  The prohibitive cost of the necessary equipment for one thing (the Sony e-reader checks in at just under £200).  And not just the cost, computer illiteracy is another massive obstacle that needs to be overcome before e-books can really provide the answer.  Whilst e-books have potential, they are not the magic bullet……yet.

Despite the obvious obstacles, public libraries should seriously consider looking into their e-book provision.  Recent trends have indicated that demand for e-books is likely to grow over the coming years.  Sales of the Kindle and Sony’s reader (the two market leaders) have certainly suggested that this need will develop.  Sony recently revealed that it had sold 300,000 units of its reader since October 2006 and Amazon have struggled to keep up with the demand for the Kindle.  Although the figures aren’t exactly ground-breaking, there is clearly a growing demand for the technology.  Thankfully, many libraries are starting to realise the potential for e-books.  According to one survey:

OCLC’s eContent division has found that three-quarters of academic libraries and half of public libraries that responded intend to increase their collections of eBooks over the next year, in spite of the current fiscal climate. Nearly 300 libraries responded to the survey highlighting key issues in perceptions and usage of eBooks currently and going forward within the UK.

Although the survey indicates significant planned increases in the acquisition of eBooks for both academic and public libraries, other key themes born out of the survey findings provide valuable insights into what is driving usage and collection development in these two key sectors.

A massive 85% of public Libraries responding to the survey indicated that they were most interested in developing fiction eBook collections despite recent research that suggests eBooks are most often used for reference purposes.  Possibly this trend is being fuelled by the growth in take up and availability of eBook reading devices among public library users such as Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s Reader.

Whilst I would dispute that fiction would be a wise area in which to develop e-book collections (I tend to believe that they lend themselves – excuse the pun – to non-fiction), it is encouraging that the potential is recognised.  And not just for e-books, eAudiobooks also have a great deal of potential, particularly in terms of those with disabilities or the housebound.  The key point, however, is that e-books will only ever complement other media formats.  As one commentator put it:

I think you will see a multiplicity of media in future, rather than one medium replacing another. If you look at the history of media in general, when a new medium comes along, it does not usually replace an earlier one; it just adds to it.

E-books will not replace standard books, they will simply be another format with which to share information.  I for one can never envisage the day where ebooks dominate the publishing industry to such an extent that paperbacks become obsolete.  But that doesn’t mean that they should be ignored.

Despite the obvious advantages of e-books, there are still some people who refuse to acknowledge the need for their availability.  A recent piece on ‘The Good Library Blog’ highlighted the difficulty that is faced by the need to develop the library service.  The first manifesto point on this blog provides an interesting comparison with the aforementioned article:

a) The library service is for people and its only purpose is to respond to their needs (currently it does not do this adequately)

I couldn’t agree more.  Libraries must respond to the needs of the people and the growth of e-books suggests that there is a growing need for the library service to cater for these people.  If they do not, they will not be providing the adequate service that the people demand.  There is great potential for e-books to bring members of the public closer to their library service.  It is up to public libraries to step up to the plate and ensure that the needs of the people are adequately met by their library service….and this includes the provision for downloadable e-books.


2 thoughts on “E-Books in Public Libraries

  1. You make some interesting points. When I read your first post about ebooks, I had a slight panic attack in that if these things make ‘normal’ books obsolete, and people can download their ebooks from the internet, we won’t need libraries and, ergo, librarians will be redundant! Thinking more rationally, I realised that this doomsday scenario is years away, and (thinking totally selfishly) I shall have retired by then in any case! I don’t see any reason why ebooks shouldn’t have a place in public libraries. I think we would be surprised at the number of our users who would embrace a new format, as has been proved by other examples – those MP3 digital audiobooks that we loan are proving surprisingly popular, judging by all the comment cards I reply to from people asking for more and for this service to be extended to all libraries.

    So – bring it on! ( and I hope Santa brings your new toy!)

  2. I don’t think there is much need to worry Chris! I might have second thoughts advocating them if they would do us out of a job! No, I think they will be an alternative format that some people may feel more comfortable with (or they may find more accessible). Paperbacks haven’t killed off hardbacks and I don’t see e-books doing the same, at least not for many years yet (maybe by then I would have retired!).

    I am not surprised that mp3 audiobooks have been a success. They are so much more convenient than the weighty 13+ disc audiobooks that are available. So I too say ‘bring it on’. We should not fear opportunity, we should embrace it.

    Oh, and should Santa bring me my new toy, I will be sure to bring it to the next meeting so everyone can see what all the fuss is about.

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