Tag Archives: ebooks

Libraries, e-books, and the Digital Divide

e-Readers were among the most popular holiday gifts in 2010, and the new e-reader owners are mostly delighted with their devices.  There are indications that owning an e-reader significantly increases the amount of time spent reading for pleasure, and the purchase of e-editions of books spiked during January.  This has been very good news for the bottom lines of e-book sellers like Amazon.

Amazon was the first, and so far the most successful, entrant into the e-reader competition.  Many people use the term “Kindle” generically to mean e-reader.    As a life-long reader, I am pleased with the new opportunities provided by the explosion of devices and content.  But as a library director I am deeply concerned that the direction that we seem to be headed is exacerbating the “digital divide.”

That is because libraries and the needs of library users are not on the radar of the makers of e-readers.  This is most explicitly true of Amazon, whose Kindles use a proprietary format for e-content rather than the more open epub format.  Make no mistake; Amazon developed the Kindle as a way to sell e-books.   They are targeting a Kindle owner who is older, well educated, and relatively affluent, and is more than willing to pay for the convenience of instant delivery of desired content.   The typical library user is not a member of this demographic group.  Many rely upon libraries for free access to content that they could not otherwise afford.  This traditional role of libraries as the preserver of access to information for all individuals is already threatened by municipal funding cuts to library budgets, and now stands to be further eroded by the business plans of producers of e-readers, and publishers of e-content.

Most libraries that “loan” e-content do so by purchasing content through Overdrive. Library users who have their own devices (the device must use the epub format, which disqualifies Kindles) can “borrow” e-books through the Overdrive account of their library, from the comfort of their own home.   In practice, learning how to install and use the required software (both Overdrive and Adobe Digital Editions) often brings these users into libraries for help and instruction.  Further, the restrictions on borrowing are counter-intuitive and onerous.  As is the case with a physical book, only one person may “borrow” each e-book at a time.   But unlike the case with a physical book, when your borrowing period is up, the content literally vanishes.  No renewal is possible, nor can a borrower who is not quite finished elect to pay a late fee for the privilege of finishing the book.   Finally, demand is high and most library Overdrive collections are very limited.  Consequently, there is frequently a long wait for a desired title, and there is always the chance that the book will become available at a time that is inconvenient for the user.   These barriers combine to make the e-books borrowing experience difficult and frustrating.

As if that weren’t enough, Harper Collins has become the first major publisher to impose additional contract restrictions on Overdrive.  Henceforth, Harper Collins titles may only be circulated 26 times before they must be re-purchased.   (This is about 1 year worth of circulations.)   No such restrictions attend to physical books.  Libraries that purchase copies of Harper Collins titles in print may circulate them as long as they last.  To arbitrarily impose a limit of 26 circulations absolutely undercuts the ability of libraries to loan e-books.

All of these barriers point to a troubling trend.  Libraries are struggling to serve individuals who can afford an e-reader, but need to borrow the content.   It is much more difficult to serve individuals who can afford neither the device nor the content.   But the stakes are very high.  If libraries do not band together to negotiate fair terms for all players in the new age of e-books,  a great percentage of library patrons will be left on the wrong side of the digital divide.




Thinking about the future of reading

Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak at a meeting of the Merrimack Valley Library Consortium considering the implications for libraries of e-readers and downloadable electronic books. I was pleased to be invited, because it gave me the chance to clarify my thinking about this complicated topic. I spoke about the OWHL’s experience with our two Kindles and new nook and our plans for a set of 5 Sony PRS-300’s that we have just ordered. I talked about the diverse electronic collections that we currently have, and our plans for future collection development. And then I confessed that I had far more questions than answers, and what I really wanted to do was to share the questions with the group, to see what my colleagues are thinking about these topics that keep me up at night.  Despite an excellent discussion, the questions mostly remain unanswered.
So I have decided to pose them to you.

1. Can we foresee a point in time when we (libraries) no longer collect physical books? What is the time line? What do we do with the print collections that we currently have?

2. With the pressures on our budgets, how long can we afford to collect the same book in redundant formats? (Print, Large print, CD audiobook, Downloadable audiobook, eBook?) If we have to give some formats up, which ones will go? How do we decide which formats to collect for any given title?

3. We belong to a library consortium. Our delivery systems were set up to facilitate the sharing of physical items. What are the implications for Inter-network Transfers of the explosion of electronic content?  Freed of geographic limitations associated with physical transfer, could we share materials with a much larger group of libraries?

4. The FCC has indicated that it views broadband access as a right, and has published a 10-year plan to get us to ubiquitous, very high speed connectivity. Consequently, we should anticipate that residents of poorer communities who are currently electronically disenfranchised will  have the ability to download books (and movies, and audio.) In this case,  how long should we continue to collect CDs and DVDs?

5. What are the implications for shared collections (such as our in NOBLE) when individual libraries decide to purchase (or lease) electronic materials under contracts that limit the materials to that library’s patrons?    How should the records for these materials appear our shared catalog?

6. Should we provide subscription access to e-book collections for use on the user’s own device? (We currently do this for downloadable audio)  If our patrons can select and download titles from these collections without coming to the library, how can we add value to the transaction?

7. Given that many of the books that we select never circulate, should we dedicate a portion of our book budget for the purchase of ebooks to be installed (and loaned) on library e-readers “on demand?”  If we do this, what counts as a circulation, the loan of the device, or the use of the title?

8. It’s not an ereader, but will the iPad change everything? Can we afford to acquire ereaders before we see what happens with the iPad?

Feel free to share your ideas.