The Age Old Institution Trumps All

American Libraries e-newsletter pointed me to this piece by Geoffrey A. Fowler at the Wall Street Journal website.

From the headline to the following quotes, there was so much to love:

“As E-Book Subscription Services Grow Their Catalogs, the Age-Old Institution Trumps All.”

“A growing stack of companies would like you to pay a monthly fee to read e-books . . . . Don’t bother. Go sign up for a public library card instead.”

“It isn’t very often that a musty old institution can hold its own against tech disrupters. But it turns out librarians haven’t just been sitting around shushing people while the Internet drove them into irrelevance. More than 90% of American public libraries have amassed e-book collections you can read on your iPad, and often even on a Kindle. You don’t have to walk into a branch or risk an overdue fine. And they’re totally free.”

OK, I take umbrage at “musty old institution.” But Fowler goes on to explain how he compared e-book bestseller and other book lists (including Stephen King’s favorites) on three subscription services, including Amazon, to the e-book holdings of the San Francisco public library and his own childhood system, Richland County, South Carolina. The verdict? “Libraries, at least for now, have one killer feature that the others don’t: e-books you actually want to read.”

He explains the business reasons for this (and Fowler knows his stuff — he also explains why the terms publishers give libraries for e-books aren’t great), and then he says this:

“Like many, I hadn’t used my library card much since I started reading books on screens. But in the past few weeks, discovering my library’s e-book collection helped me reconnect with the power of the library card I felt when I was young.”

Yes!

He goes on to explain why there are long hold lists for popular library e-book titles (again, he’s done his homework), and his closing argument is dynamite:

“But libraries serve nobler purposes than just amassing vampire romances. They provide equal access to knowledge, from employment services to computer training. And in an age where getting things “free” usually means surrendering some privacy, libraries have long been careful about protecting patron records.The rise of paid subscription services is proof that there’s demand for what libraries can offer in our Internet era.” Except we’re not going to sell you stuff based on what you check out. And that’s a very good argument against libraries allowing “buy it now” buttons in their catalog, which violate two core values of our profession — free access for all, and protection of privacy.

This is one of the best outside-the-profession articles I’ve read about why libraries are not only relevant, but as important as ever today. And why even for those who like their books virtual, we can be a vital resource. I had the opportunity to share my thoughts on the future of librarianship with a diverse group of community leaders yesterday, and one message I tried to impart is that we can serve everyone with prudent management of our resources — we can be a home for people who want stacks of picture books for their kids, senior citizens who want large print and a chance to login to Facebook and see what the grands are up to, and everyone in between.

For the generations who often seem to be absent from libraries — who have left school but don’t have their own kids yet — e-book service is convenient, free, and available wherever they have wifi.  Whether they come in to the building or not.  Our website can be their branch, 24/7.

Geoffrey Fowler, thank you. Your mother (who retired from the Richland Country Library system) must be very proud of you. You’re a smart cookie. Probably from spending time at the library when you grew up. We’re good for growing — and grown up — minds.

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Yes, its another post about e-books

I’ve started working as a bookseller at my local independent bookstore part time as well as working at my town’s public library. I’ve sometimes griped here at Nocturnal Librarian that librarianship has become another form of IT help, with so much professional time spent troubleshooting. Well this week someone at the indie actually asked me how to troubleshoot her Kindle, and when I applied my reference skills by asking more about her problem she revealed that she was having trouble downloading books she bought at Amazon.

If you know anything about independent bookstores (and she may not have — we opened a new store this week, and along with our regular customers from the old store two blocks away, we welcomed a large number of new people who’d never heard of us before, even though at 113+ it’s the oldest independent store in New Hampshire and possibly in New England), you know that it’s unlikely a bookseller found teaching a customer how to download her Amazon purchases would have a job at the end of her shift. I clamped my mouth shut so as not to say anything rude, repeated in my head, “she doesn’t know what she’s saying,” and smiled.

I explained that I could not help her with her Kindle but asked if she knew she could get other e-books at our store and that hardcover fiction, which she was looking at, is always on sale at Gibson’s. Later as she was leaving I pointed out she may very well be able to get e-books, including Kindle e-books, at her library. She had no idea about that either.

Part of me wished I’d explained to her why I couldn’t help her, part of me felt like there were lots of people in the store and I needed to move on to another customer. But I attended training today at my library with our statewide library e-book consortium director, and she made some good points about why educating our customers is important. She said we need to be telling patrons and ourselves why and how publishers are making it hard for libraries to buy and lend e-books with higher prices and restrictive lending rules.

She compared what e-book lending is doing to libraries to what Google did to reference: reference book use has plummeted (and reference librarians are becoming adult service or public service librarians who do more troubleshooting and less reference work) so we buy fewer and have smaller reference collections. We’re putting ourselves out of the reference business unless we stand up and say, “Google’s secret algorithm shows you what IT, a giant corporation, says is relevant, including paid ads. A human reference librarian can give you information that YOU can decide is relevant.”

Unless we explain why e-books are less available in libraries and also negotiate for better terms, libraries will seem to have fewer choices for readers, who will decide they can find what they want, along with what they want to know, online. Libraries have put ourselves in this position by accepting what publishers have demanded: an unsustainable model that could cause us to lack content down the road — and without content, we aren’t libraries.

Buy it now?

Yesterday I listened to a Library Journal webinar, “Are Books Your Brand? How Libraries Can Stay Relevant to Readers,”on readers’ advisory. I heard a number of good ideas to share with my boss and coworkers.  But one topic I found a little disturbing: “buy it now buttons” in library catalogs, so patrons can purchase rather than wait for a book.

All the panelists thought this was a good idea, worth promoting heavily so patrons would know a portion of  purchases benefited the library. What I found ominous was that one panelist suggested, based on his conversations with a group of library professionals, most libraries would incorporate “buy it now” in their catalogs without hesitation especially if publishers made it a condition of lending their books.

I don’t know whether publishers are considering that. But I’m especially wary because I know NoveList Select, a popular discovery tool for integrating readers’ advisory in catalogs, links to Goodreads reviews, and Amazon just bought Goodreads. I’d really hate to see Amazon be the sole “buy it now” option in any library catalog, especially ours, since we have an independent bookstore in town as well.

It appears that library “buy it now” buttons are already available through OverDrive. I know there are long wait times for popular e-books because of the restrictions publishers place on library e-lending. I was relieved to see OverDrive allows patrons to select from several stores, including IndieBound. I still don’t like it.

Yes, the mission of libraries is to promote reading and provide access to reading materials. But libraries are also free and our resources are freely available to all. It’s already possible for someone who doesn’t want to wait for a book to go buy it. Why should we alter our mission to provide e-commerce?  A better alternative would be to educate library patrons about why there is such a wait for popular e-books (thanks to Brian Herzog at Swiss Army Librarian for noting that link on his blog).

Libraries could also do more to provide readers’ services to those on long waiting lists. Sometimes the print version of a popular e-book is sitting on the shelf  — wouldn’t it be nice if patrons could see that when they place an e-book hold, or get a message to that effect? A good suggestion I heard on the webinar was to make a “read alike” handout for books with long waiting lists to give people at the service desk — why not email it to those placing e-book holds? Or, email patrons who get on the list for a book with 5 or more holds, inviting them to reply with likes and dislikes (or even use a nifty reader’s advisory form like this one, mentioned in the webinar) and receive personalized reading recommendations from a librarian?

I would think that gaining support by providing excellent professional service is the key to a library’s long term well being, to a far greater extent than the bit of money possibly on the table with “buy it now.” I hope libraries stay out of e-commerce and instead focus on being an indispensable resource for readers in our communities.