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.