I would suggest that eBooks are a significant part of a digital revolution which has been underway since the 1990s but it is the recent technological developments in digital and social media which have led to an explosion of the virtual library.
Libraries have always been about promoting books and linking authors/information and readers/information-seekers and we still can (maybe more so) through digital media. Librarians and Information Specialists have unique skills and abilities to carry out this role and we need to market this unique expertise.
Most library services now view virtual services on a par with traditional services. I believe virtual services will become the norm as demand increases and demand for digital media will eventually outstrip that for printed media. Figures from The Publishers Association show eBook sales have risen by366% in 2011 and research from YouGov estimates 1.3m e-readers and 640,000 tablets were purchased as gifts for Christmas 2011. It is also likely that supply will shift away from printed/physical, driven by costs and environmental factors.
The eBook technologies which succeed will be those the public find easiest to use; specialised e-reading devices will be superseded. Developments by eBook suppliers such as OverDrive are already improving the eBook experience, not only from the reader’s perspective but also from the information practitioner’s.
One interesting example of this is OverDrive WIN Catalog (WIN stands for “Want It Now”) that enables library users to see the full publisher catalogue, read samples of books and recommend titles to the library. It also allows library users to purchase titles online, and enables publishers and libraries to connect with their readers with author fan pages, events and other activities.
OverDrive gathers rich data about user access which can be used by libraries. This already shows most users access the OverDrive digital catalogues between 8pm and 9pm, highlighting how eBooks can enable libraries to serve new users.
The low cost of eBooks technology has also enabled the massive growth in new and upcoming writers who are self-publishing and self-publicising. Libraries could facilitate this further by developing links with these authors, especially locally.
eBooks are changing the way users access reading material and I can understand why the top publishers want to restrict access within library markets. However, I am confident the right models will be found, not least because authors will demand it – like JK Rowling and her Pottermore website.
Initiatives such as the OverDrive WIN Catalog are re-engaging publishers with the potential benefits of having an eBooks presence in the library market.
A world where people lived in electronic connectivity but physical isolation seems too Kafkaesque and I cannot bring myself to say library buildings will no longer be needed. But I do think they will be radically different, and there will be a need for community spaces as has been alluded to in previous posts on this blog. What may not be needed are huge amounts of shelving space. Libraries will not only have a reader development function but possibly a skills development one too.
These places need to be welcoming and attractive to entice users in, most likely open plan and shared, where disciplines mix. One example of this is the new Digital Peninsula at North Greenwich, another is the digital skills sharing programme just launched by the Reading Agency and the Publishers Association.
The virtual world is exciting, especially if we embrace new developments, update and enhance our skills, get involved and attempt to steer progress rather than standing on the sidelines. Nothing ever changed by sticking with the status quo. The virtual world is a new frontier to be explored, to increase the scope of libraries and secure their place in the community.
Digital advances will revolutionise what services libraries offer and how we deliver these services. It is actually an inspiring time to be a librarian and information specialist.Barbara Scott is a librarian working for Surrey County Council Libraries. She project managed the introduction of Surrey Libraries eBook Services and is a qualified Information Manager. She works on projects for the council’s Virtual Team and the Property Environment and Stock Team