Guest post #8 – Are eBooks a Byway on the Virtual Highway? by Barbara Scott

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eBook technologies which succeed will be those the public find easiest to use; specialised e-reading devices will be superseded.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
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3 Responses to Guest post #8 – Are eBooks a Byway on the Virtual Highway? by Barbara Scott

  1. Ian Anstice says:

    The last few years have unfortunately shownn that Publishers will not allow public libraries to lend the complete range of eBooks unless they are either convinced of the benefits of doing so or are forced to do so. Being that it took the legal power of Public Lending Right to console authors/publishers to the free lending of books, it makes sense that a similar legal power for eBooks needs to be established. Such a power is already on the statute books but has never been acted upon. The general secretary of the Society of Authors, Nicola Solomon, has some interesting things to say on the subject (see http://www.thebookseller.com/news/solomon-takes-author-concerns-vaizey-direct.html).

    In addition, it must also be made clear that the borrowing of eBooks via public libraries should be free. In these troubled times, there are already examples of authorities charging for them or considering charging for them. This is a dangerous precedent that would, if the pro-eBook forecasts come true, lead to an effective end of the free public library service with the demise, however far in the future, of the printed book.

  2. Barbara makes some great points. As a long time supporter (and still regular user) of public libraries I do hope they can rise to the ebook challenge. There is no doubt digital content is growing fast. In the Higher Education sector many libraries I work with are spending almost *all* their resource budget on e-resources—mostly ejournals but increasingly ebooks. Howver there is a key difference between ‘scholarly publication’ (the ‘stuff’ of HE) and ‘trade’ publishing (the stuff of public libraries) and this is critical in assessing the impact of ebooks in public libraries. Almost all scholarly publishing output is purchased by libraries. Only a small percentage of trade publishing output is bought by public libraries. (I recall a figure of 4% or so and I suspect it’s smaller for ebooks). It’s not insignificant but trade publishers don’t *depend* on public libraries. Indeed it seems publishers see library loans as a threat. Some trade publishers continue to deny public libraries ebooks. This is possible because you can’t own an ebook in the way you own a print book—you merely license it. Furthermore publishers see a clear opportunity go directly (or via aggregators like Amazon) to the reader as part of their mission to connect authors and reader. Libraries and bookshops are being ‘disintermediated’. At the recent ‘Futurebook conference, Faber’s CEO Stephen Page said that, in the last two years, the profile of their customers has changed radically largely because of the shift to digital. Before customers were almost exclusively retail outlets (bookshops etc). Now when they talk of a customer they often mean the reader. Furthermore, enabled by technology, some publishers (and ebook platform providers) are arming themselves with huge amounts of analytical data—‘business intelligence’—about how and what people are reading. I suspect they already know more about the reading habits and desires of people than libraries do. Despite the efforts of library ebook aggregators such as Overdrive, libraries have barely begun to even look at the potential of their data in this way. (And of course it’s a moot point—whose data *is* it-Overdrive’s or the library’s?). Amazon has been using such data to provide services like recommendations for over a decade. Libraries are way, way behind.
    This increasingly direct connection between publisher and reader means that I’m perhaps not so confident that ‘the right models will be found, not least because authors will demand it.’ What models *are* right for public libraries? I haven’t heard yet what they might be. At a panel session at a recent conference I asked the librarians to imagine they were across the negotiating table from a publisher. In such a situation could they explain what the value of library ebook loans was for publishers? If you were in business you might rephrase it: what value proposition for *publishers* do public libraries provide? There was no clear answer. This is important as, unlike print books, publishers can deny libraries a licence for their ebooks. And, as I noted, earlier trade publishers aren’t dependent on library sales. Maybe author interests could be met by a revision of public lending right? Are libraries fighting that corner?
    I’m not sure the skills attributed by Barbara to librarians and information specialist (at least those working in public libraries) *are* unique. Publishers will surely shift (have already?) to acquire those skills as they increasingly facilitate the direct contact between the public and the author’s work.
    I do agree however with Barbara that ‘The eBook technologies which succeed will be those the public find easiest to use’. Unfortunately many (most?) library ebook offering, as manifested on library websites, are clunky to say the least. A former (and very tech savvy) head of the MLA wrote last year of his frustrations in trying to use a his library’s ebook service http://chrisbatt.wordpress.com/2011/06/05/it-can-do-yer-%E2%80%98ed-in/
    In my view ebooks is an issue that touches the very heart of the value of public libraries. My point is that public libraries now operate in a very competitive environment with low cost organisations operating with a global reach. How do libraries compete? What value do they add? We are already seeing modern digital manifestations, from the like of Amazon, of the old commercial circulating library. It reminds me that as a small child the building in my High Street with the word ‘Library’ on it was in fact a general store and *commercial* circulating library. The public library put it out of business in the end. I sense the wheel turning….and a growing sense of loss.

  3. Libraries are a place you can go to read, learn, research, work, meet people, be entertained, and be inspired. Oh yes, and borrow books. They are particularly important to people that don’t have access to places to learn or be inspired in their home or professional lives and the Carnegie self help ethos still applies to libraries today. The gap between the resources available to a university student and the general public is as wide as ever. A C21st library vision should aspire to close that gap in a framework that is committed to both universal delivery and providing free spaces for learning, reading and contemplation.

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