Libraries and the ebook revolution
The idea of what a book is has gone through a severe shift in the last few years. When ebooks were first created in 1971 with the launch of Project Gutenburg, a system used to offer electronic copies of books found within the public domain, there was little expectation for the shift in format to change the entirety of the publishing industry or public libraries. Because of the societal preferences towards digital media and industry-based consumerism, the connection between the business of publishing and public library systems is often ignored by publishing consumers and library patrons alike. But publishers and libraries are both currently focusing on ebooks as consumers express demand for digitally formatted media.
Libraries exist to meet these patron demands and provide them with different services and media forms. The Tompkins County Public Library has been meeting this purpose by working on the digital media collection more and more frequently as a part of the Finger Lakes Library System (FLLS). The FLLS is a consortium, which is a group of libraries within an area that shares e-resources in order to provide their patrons with a larger collection of goods. The consortium runs on the OverDrive system, which is the largest provider of digital content for libraries.
“We are forward-thinking and we watch technology trends,” said Jennifer Schlossberg, the E-Services Librarian at the Tompkins County Public Library. “But [we] are also cautious about whole-heartedly adopting a technology trend until we see how it plays out in larger libraries or other venues.”
Technology is expensive, and the library systems feel the brunt of the expense when it comes to incorporating that technology into their systems. On Aug. 11, the Sun Sentinel reported that a physical book costing $25 for the library to purchase could cost $80 or $90 dollars in its ebook format for the library to purchase. Because of the budgetary limitations within the library system as a public service, there is a recent desire within the library system to find a more flexible way to use the allotted funding for e-services. Fifty eight point four percent of public library systems applied for an e-rate discount in the 2012 fiscal year according to the American Library Association (ALA).
The question is whether or not library patrons actually use the digital services that libraries are starting to provide. “Patrons have responded enthusiastically to our service and are using it quite heavily,” said Schlossberg.
Library patrons on the whole have a variety of opinions in regards to e-books. “I prefer ebooks because it’s so convenient to be able to carry around my iPad and do all that I need to do,” said Samantha Weil, a TCPL patron and student at Ithaca College.
“I prefer physical books,” said area resident and author J. Meyers, whose latest book Anywhere released simultaneously in digital and print-on-demand editions. “But I love that you can carry a whole library of books around with you on your tablet, laptop, or phone. The convenience factor is huge.”
The usage of the services is not just embedded in a liking of the electronic format. Because of the usage of programs such as OverDrive, libraries are unable to use the basic buy-and-download model of most ebook retailers such as Amazon.
“It’s still hard to rent them from libraries,” said Weil. “Availability is great, but there are long waits. There are so few copies of ebooks from libraries that you have to wait a long time to actually be able to download the book and read it.”
Long waits for single-copy ebooks are due to the usage of Digital Rights Management (DRM) by several larger book publishers. DRM places a license on the ebook file so that the file can only be used as a single copy. If one patron takes the copy out, it is unavailable until the patron returns it or the file expires on the patron’s tablet or ereader. DRM forces libraries to buy several digital copies in order to meet patron demands. When the digital copies are at higher rates than the physical copies, that can quickly subtract from the library’s funding.
As libraries feel this pressure to put more of their funding towards ebooks, there is also the negative effect on funding for physical books. “The only negative I can think of is that libraries will have fewer resources to spend on physical books, limiting what they offer on their shelves if they are also purchasing ebooks,” Meyers said. She went on to state that she did not have a complaint regarding the local library’s ebook services. “The majority of what I get from the library is physical books.”
Publishing industry professionals like Meyers still prefer to use physical books, but the industry on the whole is going more and more towards the digital trends as the numbers rise in favor of digital revenue. This division of format preference and the tendency to trend-hop shows how library patrons, general readers, and publishing professionals are moving towards a more integrated way of viewing the formats of books. Integrating these formats suggests that libraries will have to uphold both their digital and physical collections in order to please the variety of patrons within their area.
“The future is ebooks, no matter how many of us will always love paper, and libraries need to keep up with the times,” said Meyers. “The more they offer, the more people will continue to make use of and enjoy their libraries – something that I think is a very important part of their communities.”
Libraries like the Tompkins County Public Library may be working on getting more digital technology, yet not all patrons see the changes as large ones. “I think it’s a slow process for libraries, but over time, libraries need to make a more broad transition to having a comparable amount of library ebooks to that of hard copies,” Weil said.
The overall suggestion is that libraries are met with demand on both sides from their patrons: demand for ebook technology, demand for availability, and demand for equality within the media formats provided by the library. Public services are made first and foremost to respond to these demands, yet the combination of high licensing fees and DRM causes the library systems to become limited in what they can do in terms of providing for their patrons.
To make matters more complicated, other publishers have begun adding licensing to their ebooks other than DRM. Publishers such as HarperCollins have created licenses for ebook files that expire after a year, according to Nate Hoffelder of the website The Digital Reader. Because of these licenses, libraries will then have to repurchase the ability to use ebook files from those particular publishers after the initial year has passed.
Regardless of the various blockades provided by the book publishing industry with ebooks, libraries such as the Tompkins County Public Library believe that the relationship between libraries, publishersand ebooks will resolve. “Yes, we will continue growing our digital collection despite some restrictions placed on us by some of the publishers. I see digital collections and print collections living quite harmoniously together for quite some time,” Schlossburg said.
Libraries will move forward and continue to provide for as many patrons as possible – but the question of affordability will remain as long as book publishers create restrictions for libraries hoping to purchase them. As of June 12, 2013, Governer Dannel Malloy of Connecticut passed legislation regarding a study of ebooks and public libraries in the hopes of understanding how to make ebooks more available in the public library systems.
The possibility of government intervention could give libraries more of an opportunity to take advantage of their funding, yet it also suggests a regulation of business. At this stage, it is unknown if book publishers are going to continue to make ebooks a difficult-to-access necessity, or if libraries will be able to have their collections living as “harmoniously” as Schlossburg suggested.
John Jacobson is a freshman IMC major who is in the process of transcribing his blog to calligraphy. Email him at jjacobs1[at]ithaca.edu.