The Ever Increasing Disappointment with eBooks

I’ve been wrestling with what to write about eBooks on the basis of the latest library eBook fiasco with Penguin Publishing. The more I think about it, the larger the enormity and complexity of the eBook issue grows. The word that keeps resonating in my head is ‘disappointment’, but possibly not for the reasons you might think.

When it comes to eBooks and publishers, I have to be quite frank: I really don’t give a shit whether they lend eBooks to libraries or not. I will come out and say that I prefer that they wouldn’t allow for library eBook lending simply because it will spare the profession the aches and pains of buying, pardon me, licensing content under terms that provide a very limited benefit to the library or the community served. I get it that licensing is the only way publishers feel comfortable with the arrangement since it ensures ultimate control over content. With an industry that is in flux, publishers want to protect their revenue streams and that the current leading strategy is to building a fortress around intellectual property. Even then, that’s not what bothers me about publishers and eBooks.

What irks me is when publishers continue to use language in their publicity and marketing about how they “value” or even “love” libraries. If this is how they treat an institution that they profess to value or love, then I think they need to check their working definitions of those terms. The love here sounds like the tactics of an unstable ex-flame who wants to get us into bed but won’t respect us in the morning. I can’t say that I speak for the majority of librarians, but I’m willing to guess that they don’t feel like a partner in this eBook issue nor do they feel valued or loved by the publishing companies. At best, this arrangement could be called shabby treatment; at worst it is marketing lip service to cover the veneer of contempt for librarian values that utilize the First Sale Doctrine and believe in the sharing version of the common good. I would call upon publishing companies to stop with these platitudes and start putting actions and policies that support these statement of support for the library as an institution.

As disappointed as I am with publishing companies, I have my own disappointment with my peers. We can’t be churning up a shitstorm every time a company makes a change when it comes to eBooks. We ceded that control when we signed on the line for the Overdrive contracts. Nor can we act surprised when a company makes a change after all of the articles and blog posts that tell us that the publishing industry is changing and shrinking in the last few years. They are trying to save themselves, so don’t act surprised when they do something dramatic.

It’s not like we can actually do anything about these policy changes or stances, either. Not because the publishing companies will resist our efforts, but that our own internal professional dysfunction will ensure that any action is mired with doubt and confusion. Suggest a boycott? Bring on the parade of people proclaiming how much it will hurt our communities. This swallow-our-pain-for-the-happiness-of-our-family bunch will bog down any boycott debates with references to the apparently inflexible librarian values such as access and availability (even if it means giving away our future). Those not on the parade will state how ineffective or misdirected a boycott is, as if the idea of showing power through economic embargoes is only for third world countries with crappy dictators. Start a petition? The ineffective/misdirected argument returns with a new spin as to not reaching the right people. In addition, the “I have trouble with the wording” people will arise from their linguistic crypts to suggest how the petition could be better (translation: for them to sign it) if there were a few major minor changes made.

Create a committee, task force, or delegation? We all know that the trouble with groups is that they are full of people and for librarians there will be grand discussions as to who should be on them with proper representation of every library type, variety, and size under the sun. Enter the pundits and blogosphere to provide the commentary as to this process, its results, and its goals. Nothing appears to get done but resume building, organization clout creation, and a reason to write a book on the topic. Walk away completely? Sure, it’s a bad deal but that’s nothing compared to the “bad librarian” guilt that is created whenever a item or service isn’t offered. We want Mrs. Smith to be able to download a book onto their Kindle (a transitional technology platform, by the way) even if it at the potential cost and risk of the library as an institution. Because our instant gratification culture has taught us that the important point in time is now, not ten or twenty years from now when licensing practices will have eroded away our ideals of culture cultivation and preservation. No, we’ll sail for the center of this storm, even if it costs us the ship.

I could go on, but I’m starting to take morbid delight in detailing these things.

In looking ahead, there has to be a number of get-your-shit-together moments. From publishers, it will have to be over how much risk they can accept when it comes to their digital properties. Until then, we will be at the mercy of their whims. For librarians, it will be about the actual cost of access and availability of eBooks. We can’t trade our dollars and principles for materials that do not match our institutional values. There will be some more dustups, more drama, and more blowups between publishers and librarians. I know we’ll get through it, but I’m not optimistic about how that might look in five or ten years from now. In the meantime, I just ready myself to be disappointed. 

10 thoughts on “The Ever Increasing Disappointment with eBooks

  1. I wonder what we could be doing with all the money we spend on eBooks? It is not a small amount of money. It could be multiple positions, technology upgrades or whatever we need.  How many people are we serving with our digital collections? In my library we have about 4k people using OverDrive. That’s a very small segment of our population. I just want to spend our money as effectively as possible. Digital content is looking like a poor investment.

  2. Nice work telling it like it is. Speaking professionally about the profession, I think we talk a great game, but I’m not sure if we always allow ourselves to act in ways that consistently speak truth to power.

    There are many reasons why this is so, e.g., thousands of librarians working for different libraries and library boards, all of which have different funding schemes, licensing bodies, methods, means, policies, etc etc etc. So I understand that this is a complicated issue and that institutional inertia thrives in such a place. All the same, my desire – which I’m sure we all share – is to see more action and more productive results. The hard work is finding out how to actually actualize this, and then getting the gumption to organize and do it.

  3. I’m not sure where I fall on this, quite frankly. I love being able to tell people we have ebooks, and interest in them is growing in leaps and bounds. However, I’m tired of the perpetual good/not good dichotomy of having them. Public service. Headache. Undecided. I like using ebooks and like having access to libraries with good collections. But.

  4. Pingback: Who needs OverDrive? A Look at Library Ebook Alternatives - The Digital Reader

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  6. I think you make a lot of excellent points here, but the one that stuck out to me the most is that about how the Kindle (and nearly all current ebook technologies) is a transitional technology.

    None of the issues surrounding digital resources are easy, and yeah, we’re not great at solving intractable problems, as a profession. But I don’t think we should walk away. I think we should continue stay involved in the issue, for example, by working with standards bodies like NISO to develop standards around digital resources (there is an ebook standards working group right now), and by continuing to speak up for the needs of libraries, even when it feels like we’re not being heard.

    But yeah, I totally understand your point, especially when you realize how temporary this all is, and how much it’s going to change.

  7. Last Fall, I was invited to present at LJ’s first virtual summit on eBooks. My conclusion at the time was that libraries would not enjoy the same success with eBooks as they’ve had with print books. Everything I’ve seen in the past year supports this conclusion.

    This quote, from a BusinessWeek article chronicling the downfall of Borders bookstores seemed particularly apt:

    “When there’s a massive transition in an industry, the strong players make it through to the other side [...] What gets caught up in the change are the weaker players.”

    WRT to eBooks & digital content, Amazon, Apple and Google are the strong players. Libraries are weak players. There’s no way libraries can compete on features and convenience and the titans’ strategies to use content as a loss-leader or atomize it and sell it for cheap neutralizes libraries’ advantage in making content available “for free”.

    Libraries can continue conceiving of eBooks as “pBooks in computers” and decry being left out in the cold. Or, they can abandon content altogether and remake themselves into community hangouts and the equivalent of high-tech craft centers. I think both courses will accrue toward their demise.

    Instead, I’d recommend libraries focus on what they’re really good at and what no other commercial or governmental entity is addressing: the aspirational, transcendental and truly transformative. What does this mean? Well, it includes:
    - Knowledge-sharing across borders like time, geography and culture;
    - Meaning-making through assessing authority & context … discerning whether an information source is trustworthy, knowing when a particular source is suitable and when another type might be better;
    - Connection through time … understanding that even though most of what we experience seems unique, it can be situated in dialogues and inquiries dating back thousands of years;
    - Connection across borders … appreciating that our deepest needs and motivations are shared by people whose nationality, skin color, economic status, sexual preference, etc may be different than our own.

    I could go on and on about these vital human needs and the wonderful things our libraries have to offer. I’ll stop here with encouragement for libraries:
    1) Let the corporate titans duke out the digital technicalities; history will deem it pretty small stuff.
    2) Begin focusing on and articulating what has made people perpetuate libraries for thousands of years — long before Gutenberg and right up through the Occupiers. A way forward will be much clearer with these articulations lighting the way.

    • I’m not so sure it’s an either or, Jean. I don’t think your model for libraries would survive in and of itself, either, at least with regard to public libraries. While I agree completely with your assessment of ebooks and libraries, and I personally love your vision for the future, if we begin to rely less on our collections–physical and digital–and more on our abilities and services, then we will have available building space that we could use to serve as a community hang-out or as a high-tech craft center while we, librarians, are also acting as knowledge and information brokers of a sort. It all comes to down an individual library’s community’s needs. And if those needs aren’t served by the somewhat scholarly vision that you have for libraries, then we still haven’t secured our place in that community.

      • Point taken, Bonnie – my comment left a lot out. We’re talking about big, complex ideas here and it’s hard to balance substance & brevity.

        My proposal doesn’t eliminate the power of a collection – but it does dramatically change its definition, its focus in librarianship and the amount of time & money library staff spend tending it.

        Regarding libraries meeting a scholarly need, it’s but one important value they can provide. I’m appreciative of how people have used libraries over time, for practical matters like using maps or conversion charts; to use encyclopedias as an entry point for learning new things, to get news from faraway places… People have also come for entertainment — to get a copy of the latest installment of a serialized work, for example – or for activities like storytelling. Among other things, people have found libraries to be nice places to socialize and the materials help foster neighborly connections. (If my library is representative, this is still very true.) I wouldn’t dream of tampering with this rich heritage of practicality, entertainment and social activity. My scholarly-sounding list of knowledge-sharing, meaning-making and connection encompasses all these things though it may not read that way.

        I’ve thought a lot about a re-imagined library system that maintains their wonderful heritage and core values and (IMO) better leverages the training, skill and commitment of people like you, Andy and so many other library professionals. This vision has a decent chance, I believe, of re-orienting libraries and restructuring some of their work so they can regain their cred as valued sources of information and knowledge-making and vital centers of connection at the community, regional, national (and even global) level.

        My ideas are simply one person’s ideas. They have merit, but need to be challenged, expanded, melded in with other visions, etc. I’ve been trying really hard to generate a dialogue around a library vision since 2009, but it’s been a pretty hard sell.

        Being outside the profession, I may be unaware of substantive work on “the vision thing” — something that looks out 50 years and encompasses the issues so many library bloggers write about. Do you (or any other reader here) know of any? I’d sure love to get connected …

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