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Ebooks, libraries and digital things, some thoughts

Posted by Corin on October 2, 2011 in Commentary, Technology |

I try not to talk to much about topics relating to my work in my personal blog, but this post has been cooking for a while, and I think it is one I would like to get to an audience wider than just librarians.

There are increasing amounts of talk about ebooks and the future of libraries. This has been heightened somewhat in that past weeks by the moves by Amazon to lend out ebooks on its Kindle Reader in libraries across America. This has naturally led to much discussion about libraries, and what place, if any, there is for them in a world where a company can lend directly to a consumer. I should note, Amazon’s model lends them through libraries on the Overdrive Platform which libraries already subscribe to. This, if anything, could push more users towards libraries at this time. However, how much work would it take for Amazon to lend on it’s own platform?

I have to say, as someone who has made a career out of working in libraries and being responsible for the digital side of things, I am not particularly worried by this development or ebooks in general. I see only opportunity and possibility. Here is why….

A lot of studies or articles I read, talk about how many people are now buying ebooks rather than physical books and how the publishing model is shifting. This fact, while undoubtably true, does not mean doom and gloom for libraries. The person that bought a book rather than borrowing it from a library is still doing so. They are just using a different format. Sometimes these articles stray into conversation about the future of libraries, but I seem them as different topics.

One study I recently read, asked people who had e-readers what their priorities where in relation to them. Being able to borrow from a library was seen as quite low down on the list, and this caused some concern. Yet a good percentage of people do not currently borrow physical books from a library. So why would we expect a change in their behavior just because they own an ebook reading device? I am much more interested (at least initially anyway) in whether library customers who own ebook reading devices, want libraries to lend them out and what sort of content they want. From the steady stream of new Kindle owners in New Zealand who have been approaching libraries wanting to know if they can borrow e-books, I would say the answer is yes.

Growth of library services and increased user numbers, is a perennial challenge and issue for libraries. This will not go away. Libraries need to be thinking about what content they should be collecting and making available to customers as ebooks. If we do find ourselves in a position of having direct competition from publishers lending content directly, what would our point of difference be? Collation of regional specific content and making it available might be one solution. The Great New Zealand e-book project might be one such concept. Another, which a colleague suggested to me this week, might be the creation of ebook content, which draws on the wonderful collections contained within many libraries which is out of copyright.

Also, I have to admit, whilst ebooks as we currently have them are interesting. I can’t help thinking that focusing on them is not appreciating the true possibilities of what we have at our fingertips. The desire to replicate the print experience electronically is admirable, but what about the desire to harness the technology to provide rich content and learning experiences that truly are not possible with print. What about taking a child on a journey where they read, watch, interact and learn? Maybe libraries role in this world is to bring together this content? Maybe libraries role is to provide free and equitable access to these information and learning resources as they converge, unfettered from individual wealth or censorship agendas.

Yet all this aside, and whilst keeping in mind that we cannot put our heads in the sand and ebooks are here to stay, I believe we have a long way to go before libraries in New Zealand and indeed globally will not be in the business of print materials. I read a fascinating article today at Six Revisons which looked at why print is here to stay for some time. Print has such strengths in its ability to be easily transported anywhere and not rely on supporting technologies to make it available. The tactile nature of the physical book, brings a comfort and user experience which is not easily replicated digitally (although admittedly it is getting better). The printed word can be held for centuries without the need for forward planning around format accessibility and shifting.

Building on this, is the role of the library as a navigator. The ease of search and finding information in Google has led many to wonder what role libraries have. Yet, Google provides no means of critical appraisal of the information you are receiving. It gives you lots of information, but Google does not allow a person to understand the context the information is being provided to them in. Sadly, in the rush to sing the praises of Google as a means of throwing off the shackles of restricted access to knowledge we have somewhat devalued the skills that learning research and critical appraisal bring. For the average person, of course, these skills were always something of a luxury, and that is what they have relied on libraries for. I don’t believe this has changed, in fact maybe these role has become more necessary than ever.

Lastly, throwing all that aside and not sounding like a doomsday prophet I hope. The continued rise of the ebook and of technology, relies on the assumption that life and society as we know and understand it will continue. That digital technology will continue to grow and thrive in the way it has. That electricity will be easily available, along with the supporting infrastructure required to feed our hunger for more electronic devices and ways of communicating. For the sake of my own career, I hope it does, but if it doesn’t where will the value in libraries and knowledge lie? In the millions of ebook readers across the globe? Or in the minds, hearts and books of libraries and individuals across the world.

So what does all this mean? It means libraries need to be agile and proactive in finding their place in this “new” world. It means we cannot move too soon, if at all, but we MUST move before it is too late. It means the face a libraries as we know them will continue to change and we will face challenges in what our staff do and their skill sets. It means we have an exciting future on our hands for those who want it, and I for one am happy to be in it, among it and contributing to it.

So in conclusion, libraries need to be aware of, planning for and understanding their place in relation to ebooks and other digital advancements. In all likelihood, this new world is here to stay and if we wish to remain relevant and continue to play our part in ensuring equity in knowledge and having a positive influence on the development of the next generation, we had better start making our claim now to this new world. However, we must not forget the millions of people who know and love print material and value the role we play in their lives. Something to everyone should be our aim. It will be a sad and poorer world if we are do not exist.

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