Oh how we fret about tech

Three articles related to libraries, technology and e-books caught my eye this week. Taken together, they paint a picture of how much the library and book world collectively fret about whether we’re offering enough technology services to the public.

First there is the Nielsen report about teens’ preference for print versus e-books. I’m not sure how surprising this is, but I know it’s something many librarians and booksellers worry about — will anyone be reading print in the future? I check books out to teens all the time at my library and I am the parents of a teen who has never read an e-book for pleasure and regularly shops for regular books, so my view of this might be skewed by daily experience, but I was happy to read a report that backs up my optimism about print. If young people are not developing an affinity for e-books growing up, it seems unlikely that will be their preference as adults. I was also heartened to read that a solid number — about 45% — of teens are influenced by social media in making reading choicesm which is good news for libraries like mine trying to ramp up our social media presence. I’m hopeful that as The Teen Zone, Concord Public Library’s teen tumblr, and its sibling the CPL Reading-Rumblr, gain more followers, we’ll be helping people find good reads.

Next came a report from Britain on the state of public libraries. I was appalled to read a) only 35% of people in England use the library regularly (the closest stat I could find for the US is 54% who went to a library sometime in the previous 12 months, from a 2013 Pew report), b) one of the major recommendations, according to the Independent‘s story, is to offer Wi-Fi and “a comfortable, retail-standard environment, with the usual amenities of coffee, sofas and toilets,” and c) “The Government should secure changes in European and UK copyright law to enable library users to borrow e-books remotely in the next legislative term, the report recommended.” Whoa. I had no idea that only about a third of British citizens use libraries, that 1/3 of British libraries lack Wi-Fi, nor that in the UK readers can’t check out e-books outside of libraries. Two things really disturbed me:  the suggestion regarding making libraries more like cafes, and this bit about recruiting and training staff: “21st century librarian(s) will need… digital and commercial expertise.” Sounds like the British government believes that if they turn libraries into Starbucks and librarians into cafe managers they’ll have solved their problems! Wi-Fi is important, but focusing on hot drinks rather than recognizing — and educating the public –that librarians’ information skills trump random internet searching seems incredibly short-sighted and, frankly, daft! If the British government doesn’t appreciate librarians’ primary role in supporting the development of a literate and well-read citizenry, I don’t see how any of the other recommendations will do much good.

And about that digital expertise — I hosted the NH State Library’s Technology Resources Librarian Bobbi Slossar recently to talk to our staff about “customer service in the digital age.” I’d heard her speak at the NHLA Reference and Adult Services fall conference, and what really resonated with me about her approach is this point: Bobbi noted that libraries have always had car repair manuals but no one ever expected librarians to go out and do an oil change for a patron, so why should we approach tech. customer service any differently? Her solution is that staff need to focus on being librarians — teaching people how to find the information they need to solve their own tech problems — rather than trying to be help desk staff. And she notes that to teach others, we have to be comfortable with and knowledgeable about tech but even more importantly, we have to use our reference interview skills to get to the heart of what a patron needs. I couldn’t agree more (maybe British librarians should fly Bobbi over to address Parliament?), so I appreciated “The Art of Sweet Talking Or How to Talk Tech to Patrons.” Jason Pinshower, like Bobbi, notes that how we talk to patrons is just as important as what we say. His advice? “Our patrons need to be able to confide in us and feel comfortable being embarrassed about their technology need. Nobody enjoys asking for help.”  I love that. I tell patrons all the time that I personally find printers really frustrating, and it truly does make someone feel better if you admit you struggle with technology.

Thanks for reading Nocturnal Librarian and best wishes for a happy and healthful holiday season. See you in 2015!

 

 

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.

The case for the written and printed word

A few weeks ago I was driving to Vermont to see my college-student son, listening to NPR, and heard this interview with Texas judge and former San Antonio mayor Nelson Wolff, the man behind “Bibliotech” the “bookless library.” As I’ve written here before, Wolff clearly doesn’t know much about the obstacles publishers place on library e-books: burdensome pricing structures, limits on the number of check-outs, etc., which result in long waits for popular titles. He promotes his model as fiscally prudent, but seems not to worry about spending tax dollars on e-books licenses, which expire, unlike physical books, which are libraries’ to keep for as long as they can be mended. And let’s not forget that e-readers and tablets break, wear out, or become obsolete as new technologies come along.

In the interview with Scott Simon, Wolff noted one goal of Bibliotech, to “bring technology to a area of the city that is economic disadvantaged, highly minority, and do not have access to the Internet and the various modes that we have to access it. So we provide eBook readers that they can check out.” If the readers are pre-loaded with e-books, this makes a little sense, but it doesn’t explain: a) how people without internet access benefit from borrowing a device that requires an internet connection to maximize its use and b) why providing internet access and devices has to exclude access to printed books, which are also not common in low-income households. Also, nowhere in any of the coverage of Bibliotech have I read anything about whether librarians or library patrons were asked about their needs.This is one man’s dream, and that’s how it should be reported.

Wolff,  like  much of the press, is also behind the curve on e-books: the Pew Research Center notes that younger library users (16-29) value technology but also read print books at higher rates than older Americans (75% of Americans 16-29 have read a print book in the last year), and studies show e-books sales have leveled off or are declining (Nicholas Carr offers insightful reasons for this at that same link). In Canada, they have fallen to 15% of the book market. In the UK, e-books are 9% of the book market, and in the U.S., e-books are just under 25% market share. That’s it. But you didn’t know that, because the reporting is “1 in 4 books are e-books” not “3 in 4 books are printed.”

That hardly sounds like something to devote an entire new library building to, does it? I think the smarter way to go is to incorporate technology into library offerings, and to respond to the actual needs of local library users. Many of whom are looking for more than technology. They want places to meet and connect with their neighbors, according to sources as varied as the Pew Research Center and the people of Effingham, New Hampshire, who are delighted with the improvements made to their public library and are flocking to events, the most popular of which is “Writer’s Night,” in which “the community turns out to hear presentations by writers,” then “play music, recite poetry, read a passage from a favorite book,” during open mic.  Bravo to Marilyn Swan, the resourceful library director who is working on making her library — and the written word —  a vital part of Effingham life.

Another story that cheered me a bit: in England, students used 400-year-old maps from the British Library to create authentic and very high tech 3D gaming worlds for a competition. These young people, steeped in technology, are seeing library collections come to life in their work. Well done, British Library and city of Nottingham, which sponsors the GameCity “festival of video game culture.” The Daily Mail reports, “The primary objective of the competition was to inspire innovation among students and merge rich visual sources from the past with industry-leading technology.” Not to mention getting them into the archives of the venerable British Library, and giving them reason to value preserving print materials.

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.

You can get that at your library

I was at a cookout today, and overheard some fellow guests discussing e-books. The conversation wasn’t surprising. I heard the usual benefits touted: you can carry more books when you travel, it’s easy to get a new book immediately, e-books are cheap to buy and for Kindle owners there are all kinds of “free” rentals and promotions on Amazon. The drawbacks, too, were familiar: if you forget your charger you’re in trouble, it’s harder to flip back to an earlier spot in the book, depending on the device it can be hard to read outside, it’s just not the same as a real book.

What did surprise me was that when I joined the conversation and pointed out that with a library card in many New Hampshire towns you can check out e-books on our statewide downloadable books site, some people were surprised. Why should it be surprising that you can borrow an e-book from your local library but not surprising that you can “borrow” one from Amazon?

Because libraries continue to have an image problem. Take the nasty situation in Miami, where the mayor announced a couple of weeks ago that his proposed budget would shutter dozens of library branches because “people” say that “the age of the library is ending.” Nevermind that running a city based on what “people say” is ridiculous. (Even crazier? He claims Fahrenheit 451 is his favorite book. For a fun diversion, take that link, but limber up your neck first because you’ll be shaking your head).

In 21st century America, where libraries are make it possible for anyone to access the internet, fill out a job application, get tax information, and soon, choose health care options under the Affordable Care Act, that anyone could think “the age of the library is ending” is just pathetic. Miami’s mayor, like too many other “people” who “say” we’re history, is thinking in terms of shushing librarians and dusty books.

Public libraries are a tremendous value, when you think of all they offer communities.   But what I’d to remind that mayor and the “people” who “say” is that  besides being the only place in many towns where everyone, even those without smartphones or computers, can get online, libraries are also fulfilling our core mission: to promote literacy and provide free access to information and books.  We’ve been doing that since long before the  “information wants to be free” hacktivists were even glimmers in their parents eyes. And we’re still making it possible for anyone at all to borrow books — real or virtual.  Yes, you can borrow e-books, and much more, at your library. And that’s a message we need to keep delivering.

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.

Coexist

A friend forwarded this infographic about e-books and print books complementing each other. Perhaps despite all the impassioned arguments for and against e-reading, and the debate about how libraries should respond, the dust will settle and we’ll find ourselves in a world not so different than the one we know, with both print and digital books.

At least since library school (twenty(!) years ago) I’ve been hearing both media and anecdotal reports about how few kids and teens read, and yet studies keep showing they are reading. The LA Times/USC poll cited in the infographic found that 84% of people 18-29 like to read. And according to the Pew report “The Rise of E-reading,” 58% of 18-24 year olds and 54% of 25-29 year olds use the library, and the average for all age groups over 18 was nearly 58%.

A Gallup poll in 2007 determined than only 45% of Americans are baseball fans. Libraries beat baseball by 13 percentage points? Maybe reading should be the national pastime? By the way, baseball games are great places to read.

But I digress. The point is, e-books are here to stay, but it’s pretty likely that instead of making print books go away, the two will coexist. And perhaps more people will have the experience someone I know has had: her Kindle was fine for awhile, but she missed regular books, and going to the library. She hasn’t used her Kindle in awhile. It’s not that she didn’t like it, just that the novelty wore off and she went back to “real” books.

I wonder if anyone has studied how long people use their e-readers before they get put in a drawer? Tablets change the dynamic a bit, but I know I’ve had an unopened e-book on my Ipad for a few months now. Out of sight, out of mind, unlike the piles of books beside my chair, sofa, and bed, which beckon to me nightly.

Bookless libraries?

No doubt you’ve seen the provocative headlines regarding Bexar County, Texas and its planned “bookless public  library,”  the BiblioTech. Librarians across the country must be scratching their heads, since so many e-books are not available to libraries, pricing for others is much higher than for consumer editions and beyond library budgets, and lending restrictions lead to long wait times for patrons.

Mashable reports, “County officials say the BiblioTech venture will remove barriers to library access.”  I’m not even sure what this means, but it seems the officials may be unaware of the fact that their new library won’t be able to offer all the books a traditional library would. If that’s not enough, it seems a pretty big barrier to access if you need to either check out one of the library’s e-readers or have one of your own to read a book, especially since the population of Bexar County is 1,756,153 and the BiblioTech only plans to have 100-150 e-readers to circulate (media reports vary).

Even if reports of increases in tablet and e-reader ownership are accurate, that leaves hundreds of thousands of people with no way to read the BiblioTech’s digital books. Every person who enters a traditional library can access most of the collection without any special technology. THAT is barrier-free access to information.

It turns out the new all digital library is the brainchild of a judge, not a librarian. Judge Wolff says it will resemble an Apple store. Besides e-readers and the digital book collection, the BiblioTech will have meeting space and study rooms and the San Antonio Express-News reports the new library will have “personnel available to help library users with homework or other research.” Personnel? Will there be librarians?

I guess it’s pretty clear that I am skeptical. A public library that has no books seems to me to be a community download center, not a library. I’m sure some of you will disagree, and I’d like to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment and chime in!