Ever since Ken Auletta’s New Yorker article on ebooks last spring, it seems like discussions on the topic among librarians have stepped up a notch or two. In fact, things are moving so quickly that an online summit (or “webinar”) called Libraries: The Tipping Point was held late last month in an attempt to hash out just how the ebooks phenomenon will ultimately affect libraries.
What seems to be intended by the term “tipping point” is something like this: though print will obviously remain the dominant medium for some years to come, we’re getting close to a peak for print with a simultaneous shift to electronic publishing.
I was lucky enough to be able to sit in on the webinar. Participants were exposed to lots of ideas, and what follows are just a few things which I found particularly useful or insightful.
First off, I suppose a lot of librarians wonder if there are any measures of the real impact of ebooks upon libraries? The answer is that there isn’t much effect yet, but a far deeper and more profound one is believed to be just around the corner.
According to Ian Singer, a VP for Media Source, Inc., who welcomed us to the webinar, library circulation of ebooks is up — increased 36% last year — and it’s anticipated that ebooks circulation will go up even more dramatically in the next few years — perhaps 150-200%.
Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and futurist who has been a pioneer in optical character recognition, delivered the keynote address. Placing considerable emphasis upon the notion that information technology grows exponentially — much like the argument Alvin Toffler made about social change in his much-read Future Shock many years ago — he argues that the technological feasibility of ebooks (for such things as interactivity and processing power) is today far greater than it was just two or three years ago.
Kurzweil has helped develop Blio, a new, free of charge e-reader application introduced earlier this year, which can be used with numerous platforms. Working with Charlotte-based Baker and Taylor, a major distributer of books, video and music products to libraries, there are plans to release a version of Blio for libraries next year with a million titles, many of which are public domain, though some will be newer books that users will purchase. Kurzweil believes that business models which rely upon copyright must be preserved, but he foresees “an era of more flexibility” in which the “copyright wars” will be resolved.
Of the speakers who followed Kurzweil, I found the viewpoint of Michigan librarian Eli Neiburger most intriguing, though a little scary for library professionals. Going forward, he foresees a “bleak scenario” for libraries owing to the fact that they are so heavily invested in an increasingly outmoded technology: the codex.
Neiburger’s take is that libraries are literally “book temples” with values and physical facilities built around the codex. Consequently, he sees the value of libraries as “rooted in the worth of a local copy.” But, in the electronic world, he says, there’s no longer a difference between transmission and duplication. For Neiburger, the local copy concept therefore no longer makes sense, because waiting for a digital object doesn’t make sense.
The position Neiburger has on the past and future of libraries reminds me of Tim Spalding’s (creator of LibraryThing) critique on how ebooks call into question the traditional role of libraries as “aggregators” of information. That is, libraries have found their raison d’etre by 1) bringing information together in one convenient physical location, and 2) making possible multiple uses for a single use price.
Both Neiburger and Spalding would no doubt agree that ebooks, because they’re in cyberspace, break through the traditional physical barriers of brick and mortar libraries. Ebooks in fact challenge the necessity of a whole host of things librarians have seemingly always done: checking-in, checking-out, reshelving, processing and replacing materials, etc., etc.
The difference of course is that while Neiburger may be convinced that transmission and duplication are the same, for publishers and authors the control of copyright and/or digital rights is obviously essential to their survival. Spaldings’ view here is more to the point: the real crux of the issue is how libraries will survive in an ebook environment where they are not likely to receive multiple uses for a single use price.
Users of Greensboro Public Library’s ebooks available through Overdrive’s North Carolina Digital Library are no doubt familiar with the problem: when you want a popular title, you usually have to make a “hold request.” In essence, a print model for holds is artificially superimposed upon the ebook model. Waiting may not make sense for transmission of a digital object, but there really seems to be little alternative if authors and publishers are going to make money.
There was lots more at the webinar, but I think the idea most important for libraries is that we’re going to have to find and maintain a niche in a rapidly evolving information eco-system — if we don’t, we won’t survive.
Libraries of the future may need to focus more upon resources which are unique to them and their communities, such as special collections of imprints and manuscripts pertaining to local history and genealogy. Similarly, we also need to be on watch for new opportunities in information services; for example, urban libraries could develop resource centers focused upon the “New Urbanism” trend toward downtown redevelopment and “walkability” — i.e., the idea that everything you need (work, groceries, entertainment, etc.) be within easy walking distance. And areas where libraries excel, such as children’s programming, will have to be pushed even harder.
Anyway, a follow-up webinar on ebooks is planned for April of next year.