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.