13 May 2011

Ebooks in Libraries: Is It Common Sense?

So yesterday a coworker brought me a snippet of a column from our local newspaper and said that I might be interested in the last section. I don’t get the paper anymore, nor follow it digitally (note to Self: start doing that now) but it seems to be a weekly syndicated column called On Computers which takes on different pieces of technology in a simple, “you might want to know about this” language that would certainly be read by those who may want some more information.

However, in this article he wrote about ebooks. It started off tamely with the Kindle format coming to libraries, but then went on to basically say that he and his wife have not had a good experience with ebooks in libraries because:
  • Libraries are not buying a lot of ebooks. Oh, and they are always checked out.
  • Libraries are “permitting" ebooks to be borrowed on the same model as print (one copy to one patron) and of course the computers don't care since it is a digital file and can be copied easily.
  • He opines that “after enough board meetings they’ll (aka libraries) come around to common sense”.
I was aghast, needless to say. As someone who deals with numerous libraries and our digital catalog, the thoughts about slim budgets and having NO licensing control and DRM and HarperCollins and common sense went spinning through my head. I was affronted, not only by my own knowledge but that these statements are easily disproved by a LOT of information out there. You would think that someone that is gathering information on technology would use it to fact-check some of his statements. Wouldn't that be "common sense"? I did send a (hopefully) clear and calm email with counter-arguments to his points.

However, this made me reflect some more during the day on what sort of information our patrons have about ebooks. Was this just one person’s lack of information, or is this what many of our patrons believe? What do they know beyond “the library now has ebooks”? For every patron that has expressed their support about my network’s decision to not purchase HarperCollins titles when the 26-checkout limit was put into effect, I am sure there are a dozen or more wondering why we don’t have Harry Potter ebooks (not available) or why we won’t have the latest Janet Evanovich (HarperCollins) or why we won’t buy more than six copies of a title (budget limits)? We do our best, just as the individual libraries and other networks supplying ebooks - and print books and internet and programs and everything else libraries provide - do with the funds they have.

But do patrons understand it? They see numerous print copies on the shelf of the titles they are looking for, or know they can get it from other libraries through a cooperative network or interlibrary loan. They see Amazon and Barnes and Noble supplying ebooks we don’t carry, allowing lending of copies between devices, instant wireless downloads. They do not see the licensing agreements, the staff training, the off-site process of the catalog. They may not be reading about the publishers that won't license their ebooks to libraries, or the numerous discussions in the publishing world about ebooks hurting sales because of their prices.

So, as librarians on the front line and behind the scenes, what are we responsible for? We are taught and tasked to be information providers, but of course we are not mind readers. Can we ensure our patrons know about the benefits and the limitations of ebooks in libraries? Or should we hope that everyone has a little common sense about this topic?


  1. Possibly it's my frame of mind today, but I wonder how many of our patrons know we have ebooks at all.

  2. Now I haven't checked for a while, but what stopped me from really taking advantage of e-book borrowing from my library was that A. they didn't have Kindle versions and B. the process to borrow the books was really cumbersome. (I had to download software to my PC, then the book, then read it on my PC because with the DRM, I couldn't convert it and put it on my kindle.

    As a patron and book blogger, I do understand budget constraints and the crazy licensing requirements that some publishing houses require though.

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