Well, what a weekend of ebook related revelations that was. Despite campaigning tirelessly for libraries against ebooks, it became clear over the weekend that ‘Perkins’ doesn’t really understand the subscription model that is most often employed by public libraries. The cat commented on the weekend about his (its?) major concern regarding the provision of ebooks – the need to continually re-assess every year whether you want to continue to offer a particular ebook and, if so, the need to pay for it again. Yes, that’s right ‘again’. Obviously such a model would be cause for concern. Why should a service effectively pay for a new copy of a book every year? And why are librarians championing something that will cause them more work? Well, the truth is they are not.
The model most often used by libraries is that of a one user-one title service (most frequently through Overdrive who are the market leader at present). Libraries pay a one-off fee for the service, followed by a regular maintenance fee. Once this is set up, libraries populate their online library with whatever stock they see fit (with very little difference in cost from a print edition). And, this is the crucial point, once bought that is it. It will remain there forever, theoretically as it would if it were a print edition. Although, as we all know, what with publishers cutting costs there has been a marked decrease in the quality of print editions of late. It was not unknown for me to come across books that virtually crumbled in your hand after only one loan when working in public libraries. Ebooks never crumble. Once they are in your catalogue you never have to worry about buying replacements – unless, of course, you wish to purchase a more recent edition of a particular title (or if the supplier goes bust of course). Genius eh?
However, even this is not enough to put Perkins off his stride. No, ebooks are underused and only serve a tiny fraction of library users. That rather sounds like the voice of the private sector does it not? Public libraries are paid for by everyone and so should try to meet the needs of their users wherever possible, not simply focus on the needs of an elite few. Without the users libraries wouldn’t exist. We should, at all costs, try to meet their needs, not tell them what we think is best for them. Unless we want the library service to hark back to the Victorian era, or maybe Stalin’s Russia – centralised and rigidly sticking to prescribed dogma scribbled on the back of fag packets by our superiors. Whoops, sorry, diverted into a bit of a rant then. Back to the plot…..
The truth is that ebooks have been very popular, as my local authority has demonstrated. When searching for new ebooks to borrow on their system it is quite amazing how many are out on loan (maximum of 6 can be loaned to a borrower at any one time) and how many reservations are in place. Clearly they are proving popular. It certainly seems that users are demanding a quality ebook service from their local library service. The very fact that my local authority (Kent since you are asking!) has had to up the limit from 3 to 6 electronic titles (ebook or eAudiobook) due to public demand rather suggests that it has been very popular. Which is a very good thing. If there were only a dribble of loans then I would accept that now is not the time. However, when you have all six copies of a title on loan and a further 6 reservations, you need to start thinking that maybe there is a demand here.
And herein lies the problem. Amazon has just announced that ebooks will be able to be loaned between Kindle owners. This is quite a major development and one that should concern libraries. There is a very real chance that libraries will miss the boat on this one. If companies allow their ebooks to be loaned, while libraries are trying to decide whether it is for them or not, they will find it very difficult to successfully launch when Amazon et al have an established service. Why bother with your local library if you can just exchange books via Amazon? The only chance is if libraries can establish their service now, bed it in and make the library the first place to go to borrow ebooks for free. It should be the first stop for them as much as it should be the first stop for print editions. If libraries can establish themselves as providers of borrowable ebooks, then it has a chance of surviving the digital age and coming out the other side stronger than before. If not, well, let’s not kid ourselves that they can just stick with a determined focus on print editions for ever more and survive, let alone prosper. If that were to be the case, we may have to face the reality that, in the future, people will exchange quaint memories of a free service that once enabled you to borrow things made out of some curious thing called ‘paper’ – replaced by a number of private companies offering digital publications at a price. Whither equal access for all then?
Well, I took a while getting there, but I did promise to talk about eAudiobooks too! Before I explain my discovery at the week-end, some context. I have recently moved into my first office based role. Up until now I have always worked in a customer facing role, first in retail, then in public libraries. As a result, the office environment was a bit of a new one for me. Previous to now my only experience had been some work experience at a publishing company in London. I have learnt, relatively quickly, that my iPhone has become my best friend (as if it wasn’t already!). The thought of turning up to work and forgetting my headphones fills me with dread. I wake up in the night in a cold sweat just thinking about it. Ok, maybe not. But it is essential.
The only drawback is that, as someone who listens to mainly rock (have I mentioned my love of Pearl Jam?!), it can be a bit heavy going on the ears all day. Every now and then I like to break it up with a podcast or some radio so that I have something different to entertain me whilst I work (should I be entertained while at work??). Which is where eAudiobooks come in (capital ‘A’ or small ‘a’??).
Now, my authority offers (as I may have mentioned) ebooks for loan. They also, however, offer eAudiobooks – audiobooks in a digital format so that they can be played on mp3 players, computers etc etc. I hadn’t bothered with this too much as I thought that I would need to download them to my PC, sync with my iPhone and transfer them over – far too much hassle. Besides, I have never really got into the idea of having someone read to me, at least not in my adult years! However, turns out I was wrong (mark this date in your diary!). Overdrive offer a free application for your iPhone (and other smartphones too!) so that you can download eAudiobooks direct from your library website onto your phone! No syncing, no connecting to a computer…..awesome!
As a result of this magical discovery, I instantly downloaded the app and hunted around for titles to download on KCC’s library website. I discovered, as you might expect, that it was a very popular service with Kent’s borrowers. In fact, out of the first 100 mp3s I looked at on the site (there are 169 in total), only 22 were available. 78% of the county’s eAudiobook stock is out on loan! Now I don’t know about you but that is what I call a popular service! I also call it a genius service when you work in an office all day working at a computer – which is possibly why it has proven so popular.
However, this service is not only good for office workers and alike. It is also a wonder for the most vulnerable in society. Let’s face it, the ability to access eAudio at home is massive step forward on this level. Typically libraries keep a fairly small selection of audio titles as they are expensive and take up a large amount of space. By providing them virtually you are providing a much wider range of stock without taking up any space in the building. Not only that, but for the housebound it is particularly beneficial. A whole new world is opened up to them. And isn’t that something we should strive for? Shouldn’t we ensure that library users have access to a wide range of resources? Shouldn’t we ensure that we do what we can to assist those who are least able to use the library service by providing a range of resources online? Of course we should. Libraries overriding role in society (in my view anyway) is to ensure equality of access to information for all. That is why they were established – so that information wasn’t solely in the hands of a privileged elite and that the workers could have a taste of the knowledge that was once solely the preserve of the wealthy. I for one hope that authorities that do not currently offer ebooks and eAudiobooks look at the example of Kent and others and decide that it most definitely is the time to offer these services to our users, before it is too late.