Calling Timeout on Library eBook Integration

Forgive me if I don’t applaud the announcement that Penguin has returned try out a library eBook lending program with the New York Public Library. I know I’m going to eat my own words since I’m someone who really wants publishers and libraries to experiment with different eBook lending models, but I can’t say that the starting point for this experiment is exactly what I had in mind. Six months embargo on new releases and titles that expire after a year? At least the price is projected close to retail for, well, I don’t know what. A Mission: Impossible style file that self destructs after it has fulfilled its purpose? I don’t see anything about the lending portion of it so I’m wondering if it is still the ‘one book one person’ model (which would be my guess) or something new and different. Granted, they are looking to monitor and modify the program every few months so things could change. But this is one of hell of a starting point to work from. To me, this deal still has the look and feel of second class citizenship for eBooks.

The timing of this announcement comes on the heels of Jamie LaRue’s piece on the Digital Shift, “All Hat, No Cattle: A Call for Libraries to Transform Before It’s Too Late”. It effectively lays out the case for libraries to take command of their eBook collections for their own sake and survival. It’s a great call to action and a blueprint for some steps that are within the control of every librarian and within the boundaries of any library budget. Jamie brings the needs of the library back to the forefront rather than as a footnote on the eBooks models we are currently engaged in. As the ones with the budgets and the money to spend, it is a reminder that we are in firmly in the driver’s seat.

Set against this ALA endorsed Penguin/NYPL announcement, the deal seems to embrace the old mantra of getting eBooks into libraries by any means necessary. If you really wanted to view it as an experiment, it would appear that all the variables being tested are set by the publisher with none from the library side. The NYPL is effectively bankrolling Penguin to try out its hypotheses without taking on any risk or concession of its own to the needs of the library. I will be keen to see the kinds of corrections over time for this program, but my guess is that they will reflect a “publisher first” paradigm.

In the spirit of offering corrections of my own, I think I will modify my position when it comes to eBooks. And it sounds like this:

What’s the hurry?

As much as people breathlessly boast of an era of constant change and the need to stay current in libraries (I consider myself guilty of this as well), the enemy of objective decision making is a time pressure. Studies have shown that people tend to make worse decisions when placed under a time pressure. While these are not life-and-death split second decisions, our professional literature and commentary is rife with constant chants of “INNOVATE!”, the short attention span theater of technology updates and usage surveys, and the pearl clutching considerations of continued relevancy. It can’t help but prime our lovely primate brains to think that what we are currently doing is inadequate and in need of an IMMEDIATE response lest we fall behind, fall out of favor, and just plain fall.

Yes, eBooks are a growing market that has recently overtaken the hardcover sales numbers according to our ‘friends’ at the AAP. (Not a member of the AAP: Amazon. But they’ve already said their eBook sales have surpassed print book sales last year, even if they are referring to units sold and not revenue or providing actual numbers of this event. So who knows what the actual sales numbers look like when one of the world’s largest booksellers doesn’t give out stats.) Pew Internet back in April and Bowker back in March put eBook penetration around 20% of the United States population. (Or, to take some inspiration from Barbara Fister, around 80% of the population have not read an eBook. Other ways of saying this: 4 in 5 Americans have not read an eBook.)

Yes, these numbers are increasing each year. But I have yet to hear a serious complaint that the library should not be supported because they do not offer eBooks. It’s simply not a standard that the public library is being held to for usefulness by its communities. (I’ll concede to those people in affluent communities with higher rates of eReader ownership, but I still want to see the complaint.) One might try to counter by saying that the library cannot afford the public relations damage of looking antiquated, I would reply that the library cannot afford the larger public relations damage by looking fiscally irresponsible in a time of contested budgets by making dreadful purchases and investments.

First, buying eBooks at outrageous prices or under absurd conditions hurts the return on investment (ROI) argument that libraries have used for a long time to show their community value. Buying the $105 Game of Thrones eBook license (not even ownership, just access) is just a big fat target for budget hawks. Where is the financial responsibility in that?

Second, it is purchasing eBooks under lock-in conditions and onerous terms of service. When a vendor relationship turns sour, the library cannot simply take its investment and move it to a new eBook provider. It’s gone, baby, gone. As Jamie hinted in his writing, the conditions to allow eBook lending make it harder, not easier, for library members to access. It is a step back in a digital age that seeks to build and create faster and short connections.

So, the public library has taken taxpayer money, purchased a exorbitant license to an eBook that it cannot control nor transfer and is a pain in the ass to access for a (still) minority of the community population. This is a shiv to the respectable ROI argument that public libraries have made for years. Give us a dollar and we’ll give four back… unless we decide to buy an eBook for the library. In that case, we may need some more money. 

Getting back to center here, my new view of the library eBook landscape is that time is still on our side. Thoughtfulness of our community needs and tough analysis of financial and ownership (or lack thereof) implications should not be surrendered to the quick fix of current vendor/publisher models and offerings. We are not suffering from a lack of interest or action in looking to make this format addition to our collections, but there is a worn trail of knee jerk reactions under imaginary time pressures for the inflated need of a proven minority. Yes, eBooks are ascending  but libraries are not going out in the format shuffle. The hourglass is still mostly full, not nearly empty, when it comes integrating eBooks into our libraries. Let’s take a moment for a deep breath, gather ourselves once more, and reconsider this issue with an eye towards what it brings to our community in a sustainable manner. We owe it our own future as well as the communities that we serve.

20 thoughts on “Calling Timeout on Library eBook Integration

  1. If libraries must conscientiously meet local needs and conditions, which I believe is the case, then there are excellent-simple and effective-ways of determining the efficacy of an investment in eBooks. Start by asking your members where eBooks rank as a priority. For my community the exemplary $105 investment in a Game of Thrones license would raise questions about our fiscal prudence and our list of priorities.

  2. Libraries do need to rethink their policies toward ebooks. Our library has found that what you say is true. Most of the people that take advantage of our ebook service tend to be more affluent, or the aging parents of affluent children. Of those who use our ebook service, most complain of long wait lists, hard to use interfaces and general lack of availability of the titles our patrons want, when they want them. Many are pleasantly surprised to find that they can get their desired title more quickly in hard copy more quickly than they can from the digital editions.

    One of the bright spots in our ebook experience is when I hear patrons extolling the virtues of Project Gutenberg to one another. Project Gutenberg was one of the things that turned me onto the internet and the use of technology in libraries in the first place.

    Ebooks have their place. I am glad to teach patrons how to use their new ebook technology, but I am coming to believe that libraries should focus on pointing patrons to low cost or free educational ebooks, or independent publishers, who do not want to continue to gouge libraries Libraries can be a part of cutting edge technology, without selling their souls to corporations that have no real concern literacy of any kind.

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  4. As a computer technology instructor, I feel frustrated that the biggest segment I see are the people who cannot figure out how to operate their spanky-new devices and never really wanted them to start with; their kids thought they should have them. Any technology which requires them to do more than turn the device on (which is in itself a difficult endeavor for some) is more than they want to deal with, and there are some patrons who simply come back every couple of weeks to have us load more books for them. The time required to train someone to use resources we don’t even own seems way out of line with the benefits. And we still get all the complaints.

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  7. In the academic library world, we’re a little better off, with more options for purchasing ebooks, selecting platforms and a patron population slightly more comfortable with technology. I do like the argument regarding ROI as a defense against restrictive subscription models: for some titles/topics it may work but it cannot be the general or universal rule. eJournals are a different kettle of fish: subscription models work there but perhaps that’s because the majority of the content may never be used in each ‘title’ whereas in an ebook, although there are chapters that see varying use, there’s a much higher chance of the entire ebook being read virtual cover to virtual cover.

  8. All excellent points! I wonder though – how does public perception play into this issue? Patrons don’t see any of the contracts or behind-the-scenes stuff, they just want to be able to check out ebooks; in my experience – and this may just be my own community – but very few of the patrons at my library pay any attention at all to our budget/spending – but many, many people have been complaining to us about how few ebooks we have to offer. You say of ebooks that “It’s simply not a standard that the public library is being held to for usefulness by its communities” but in my community we are being held responible. With the popular media perpetuating the idea that libraries are becoming obsolete, a sit-back-and-wait approach to new technologies threatens to reinforce this mistaken view of our role in our communities. We shouldn’t be willing to agree to such massively restrictive and unfair agreements with publishers – but we also need our patrons to see us fighting to get them access. We need to be active advocates for our patrons in this new storytelling paradigm.

    I know these things aren’t mutually exclusive, that’s not my argument. We do need to make sure that we’re not wasting tax-payer dollars and that we’re offering the best service to our patrons. And we need to be seen fighting for that service. It’s just that I don’t think we have a very good sense of the balance we need to strike with this issue. Because in the marketplace of public perception, something may very well be better than nothing.

  9. What if one of these Penguin eBooks doesn’t even get checked out in that one-year limit? Does it still disappear (I’m certain the answer is ‘yes’)? I’m still a little shocked that the NYPL and ALA thought this one-year evaporation was a good deal for libraries.

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