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Absent at the eBook Revolution

Submitted by Tom Peters on June 15, 2009 - 10:35am


Conference program topics tend to be lagging indicators of the hot topics in a given field.  The lag time develops because it takes time to plan for a professional conference, even an online or in-world conference.  In fact, by the time a molten topic spews forth many conference programs, sometimes even entire conferences, that’s a signal that the magma has started to cool and harden. 

The eBook movement is heating up worldwide, with many major corporations launching eBook services and significant chunks of the worldwide reading public – the Chinese and romance readers come to mind – giving ereading a sustained try.  The paucity of programs about eBooks at next month’s ALA Annual Conference in Chicago could be seen as a case-in-point of this general truth about conference program topics as lagging behind hot topics. Nonethless, I think a different, more troubling dynamic is developing between eBooks, libraries, and librarianship.  I worry about the role that libraries and librarianship will have in the real eBook revolution. 

A colleague recently brought to my attention that his search of the program titles and descriptions for ALA Annual in Chicago turned up only two programs about eBooks.  One is a RUSA STARS program about resource sharing in the 21st century, and the other is an ALCTS preconference about Streaming Media and Proliferating E-Books. 

My search didn’t find much more.  Of the dozens of topics proposed to be discussed during the ALA unconference preconference (or is it a conference unpreconference?) scheduled for Friday, July 10th, only one proposed topic --  “Audiobooks, e-books, and online reading” – specifically mentions eBooks.  Jessica Moyer at the U. of Minnesota(Go Gophers!) suggested that topic.   Registrants for the unconference are still voting on which of the proposed topics the group actually wants to discuss, so eBooks may get voted off the island. 

The problem with the eBook movement is that it is no longer perceived as a newly emerging hot topic, but as a stale, old, previously overhyped topic.  eBooks have been in the radar of librarianship for over a decade now.  In the late 1990s, the launch of the Rocket eBook device, the buzz created by the then standalone start-up company called netLibrary and other innovative efforts created a lot of excitement and interest.  The prognostications and preferences of eBook pundits have become petrified.  When the eBook revolution is mentioned, many librarians may think to themselves, “Been there, done that.  Fooled once, shame on you.  Fooled twice, shame on me. “

And much has happened vis-à-vis libraries and eBooks since then.  Many publishers and eBook aggregators (OverDrive, ebrary, etc.) have developed and delivered lots of eBooks to library users.  Nevertheless, the really big social revolution in reading hasn’t happened yet, but we may be on the verge.

Many major corporations like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Sony, are really pushing eBook services directly to end-users.  The Kindle family of portable dedicated ereading appliances seems to be selling well, although Jeff Bezos won’t share sales figures, even with Amazon’s shareholders.  Another wave of dedicated reading devices is beginning to hit the beach, and startup companies like Pixel Qi are developing low-cost screens, better batteries, and other improved components that will drive down the hardware costs.   Although ereading still seemsprimarily to be a domain  for the gadgetista and affluent readers, that’s a typical phase through which most technological developments pass. 

The real problem with eBooks, IMHO, is that, while that overhyped dud in the late 1990s didn’t result in paperless offices and parlors around the world, we may be on the verge of the real eBook revolution now.  I write this guardedly and sheepishly, because I don’t want to overhype eBooks yet again.   After suffering through a decade of hype, many false starts, and only modest successes, librarians may be lulled into a sense of complacency about eBooks just as the real revolution begins.

An interesting professional conundrum may be developing here, because, while recent developments in the eBook marketplace may be generally good for readers (a debatable assumption, I admit), most librarians seem to agree that most of the recent eBook developments may result, intentionally or unintentionally, in locking libraries out of the process.  Most of these emerging eBook systems are designed to move content directly from publishers, aggregators, or even authors to the end-readers.  What’s good for readers may not be good for libraries.

This may be a fundamental professional challenge:  To put the needs and interests of your clients before your needs and interests as a professional.  We all know that lawyers, educators, and healthcare professionals have to confront this conundrum occasionally, and librarians do, too.  If push comes to shove, we need to remember that the goal of serving readers trumps the goal of saving libraries, even if we are frustratingly saddened that these two noble professional goals may suddenly become out of sync. 

I just re-read Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science in light of this possible conflict between libraries and readers.  Those laws emphasize books, reading, and readers/users.  I assume Ranganathan would have accepted eBooks as a type of book.  Only the enigmatic 5th law (the library is a growing organism) specifically mentions libraries.   


Comments (4)

e-books have pesky DRM

e-books have pesky DRM problems. I can't lend an e-book to a friend the way I can lend a hardcopy book.
And a book usually can last for several decades in reasonably good condition. An e-book? I don't know.

Reading ought to be as accessible to those with limited means as possible. At present, e-books seem designed for those with much discretionary income. So, am not surprised librarians are leery.

The Charleston Conference

The Charleston Conference does an excellent job of covering e-books. It is possible that their program structure allows for hot topics, while ALA lags behind. It is one reason why I attend Charleston --- publishers, providers and librarians from all types of libraries and positions get together to talk about current topics.

Good point, Anonymous. Long

Good point, Anonymous. Long live the long tail of content. Years ago I saw some statistics that indicated that the book buying "clout" of libraries collectively had been steadily declining as a percentage of all books sold in the U.S. during most of the 20th century. Although I don't know for certain if that trend has continued in the 1990's and this decade, with the rise of Amazon and big-box book retailers, coupled with the decline in collection development funds in many (most? all?) libraries, I wouldn't be surprised.

"An interesting professional

"An interesting professional conundrum may be developing here, because, while recent developments in the eBook marketplace may be generally good for readers (a debatable assumption, I admit), most librarians seem to agree that most of the recent eBook developments may result, intentionally or unintentionally, in locking libraries out of the process. Most of these emerging eBook systems are designed to move content directly from publishers, aggregators, or even authors to the end-readers. What’s good for readers may not be good for libraries."

Perhaps that should be rephrased as "What is good for readers *that can afford it*". While it still lasts, one primary advantage of libraries is the ability to offer a much larger selection, collectively, than most any individual can acquire on his / her own. I don't really see that changing with eBooks (except perhaps those in the public domain that are *made* available in eBook form or other free items). Smart publishers, aggregators, and authors will realize that libraries (or library consortia) still are a good choice for eBooks, just as we are for most books right now because we are a rather large market for items outside of bestsellers. And that is most books!!

It would be nice if there was a forceful central voice in library land that could point this out to those publishers, aggregators, and authors so that libraries could get in on the ground floor. They don't seem to pay much attention to our individual voices. But they would pay attention to our collective money!