Recent ebook Webinar: More Thoughts on Libraries and ebooks

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.

“Annus Horribilis” for Public Libraries

Some years ago I remember Queen Elizabeth describing a particularly difficult year for the royal family as her annus horribilis.  I don’t know Latin, but the meaning is plain enough, and I think the Queen’s words well describe the kind of year many public libraries are having as they struggle to come to grips with budget cuts.     

Folks around here have heard plenty lately about Greensboro Public Library’s budget woes. 

But there are so many libraries around the country with funding problems this year, especially in our larger cities, some might get the impression that we are dangerously close to an institutional crisis:  i.e., a situation in which the survival of the public library as a vital and enduring part of American life — dedicated to providing unfettered information access to all — is literally at risk.  

Back in March we heard of the dire situation for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library (NC), which had to lay off staff, reduce hours and cut salaries just to get through FY 2009-10.  They now face the prospect of a 45.5% reduction for FY 2010-11 which would necessitate additional layoffs and the closure of sixteen branches.  Their budget, which in FY 2008-09 exceeded $40 million, may be cut to $17.67 million.

New York Public Library is facing a similar dilemma of over $36 million in cuts and may lose over one-third of its staff to layoffs.  As many as ten libraries there may be forced to close, and significant reductions in operating hours seem likely for those which will remain open. 

Dallas Public Library (TX), as this article describes, has gone from a $32 million budget of just a few years ago to the likelihood of being slashed to $13 million for the next fiscal year — if the budget currently proposed for the City of Dallas is approved.   

Even the Board of Trustees of the venerable Boston Public Library was forced to shutter four branches this year in order to close a $3.6 million dollar budget gap

If you care to do a Google search, you can find plenty more examples of libraries in trouble.  

Of course, the budget woes of public libraries have a great deal to do with the recession — no need to go into that here — but the real shame is that the people who need libraries the most during tough times — the unemployed seeking jobs, the “information have-nots,” the families who can’t afford supplemental reading materials and computers for their children — are the folks for whom tough times are the toughest.

The simple fact is that there are no easy answers for libraries.  Faced with shrinking revenues and forced to choose between the essential and the less essential, municipal governments more often than not place public libraries in the latter category.  And it is true that providing access to information is not tangible in the same way as some other governmental obligations, such as public safety (though the ability to search for things like a job or health information can be no less vital). 

However, a good bit of the institutional value of public libraries is really intangible and thus very difficult to measure, which is perhaps all too easy to forget in difficult times like these.  Support for a robust, healthy public library system is not just about the here and now:  it also shows that a community looks to and cares about its future.

By this I mean that institutions like libraries (as well as museums, art galleries and other cultural institutions) exist as public spaces where individuals and groups in a community can acquaint themselves with the ideas which transcend that community.  Public libraries thus offer us the power of knowledge (which I would define here as taking ideas and from them creating new ones), something hugely important to any community which seeks to grow in its understanding, to be dynamic, to quite literally make new community

This is in fact where the public library takes up the role sometimes described as the “people’s university.”  A public library exists not simply as a vehicle for receiving or accessing information, but also as an acknowledgment by a community that it values creativity (its existence is in a sense a civic statement to that effect).  A public library is a repository for general information, traditions, history, yes, but it is also a repository for the raw materials from which new traditions, ideas, art, etc., will come.  And perhaps above all, its perpetuation and preservation as a viable institution ensures everyone has access to those raw materials.

At any rate, I’ve rambled on too long.  I believe public libraries will weather this crisis.  They will likely be transformed in the future, perhaps in ways which we today would find virtually unrecognizable, but in a free society such as ours there will always be an institutional niche for something like a public library.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library System Hit by Major Budget Crisis

Librarians and library patrons across North Carolina have no doubt been stunned by developments in Mecklenburg County this past week, where for a few days it appeared that a huge budget gap would necessitate the closing of half of the County’s public library branches.

The library’s problems originated with a $34.6 million dollar shortfall in Mecklenburg County’s budget for FY 2009-10.  As a consequence, departments throughout Mecklenburg County government were asked to reduce their budgets and the Public Library of Charlotte-Mecklenburg County had to find $2 million in reductions. 

Faced with only grim alternatives, on March 18th Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s board of trustees voted to close twelve of the system’s twenty-four branches effective April 3rd.  Under this proposal, 148 staff would also have been laid off.   

However, following a sustained public outcry — including a fund-raising effort which has now reached almost $250,000 — on Wednesday of this week the trustees rescinded the decision to close the branches.  Instead, they decided to reduce staff salaries 5-20%, lay off fewer staff (82-84), and reduce hours/days of operation and services.  The new hours take effect April 5th. 

The latest plan is nonetheless hardly cause to breathe a sigh of relief, and projections for next year’s budget for Charlotte-Mecklenburg continue to be dire.  According to this article, “the real pain” is coming in the budget for 2010-11 when county officials face the possibility of close to $100 million in cuts to the current $1.4 billion dollar county budget.  As many as 500 county staff may lose their jobs.

Charlotte-Meck’s library system is not the only one in North Carolina with budget woes.  For example, Wake County may have to close their Southeast Regional branch in Garner in order to close a $1.2 budget gap next year.

According to this New York Times article, state and local governments across the country cut 45,000 jobs during January and February, and more layoffs are expected as these governments begin to plan their budgets for the next fiscal year.  

Times are simply tough all around.  And libraries are no exception.

R.I.P. Libraries?

The Good Old Days at Greensboro Public

The Good Old Days at Greensboro Public

As a librarian and a book collector, I suppose I should be concerned about this article from CNN entitled, “The Future of Libraries With or Without Books.”

Libraries are changing — and changing dramatically.  And I agree that books are on their way out — or at least they will not be as important for the libraries of the future as they once were. 

But I would lay emphasis on two points which are not really made in the CNN article.

First, I think modern libraries will continue to play a very important role in providing services to society’s information have-nots.

It is true that as virtually every conceivable type of information gradually becomes available in some type of digital format, folks who can afford their own computers will depend less and less on libraries. 

However, those who don’t have computers find themselves at a tremendous disadvantage.  For example, just try to find or apply for a job these days if you don’t have access to the internet. 

That’s where libraries come in.  We’re the social safety net for these information have-nots; in my opinion, this is an essential part of the mission of public libraries — now, and in the foreseeable future.  

And this is why adequate funding for public libraries remains important.  Society must embrace the idea that we have a social responsibility to provide our information have-nots with access to information — just as, for example, we provide medical care to the indigent.  

Secondly, librarians need to be more than just hip computer geeks with a Facebook page or a familiarity with Twitter — I think the article placed far too much emphasis here.  

Many library environments are very challenging.  Patrons in libraries may have special needs, such as a physical handicap or mental illness.  They also frequently lack the information literacy skills necessary to obtain the information they need.  And, as libraries morph further into social gathering places, librarians must also ensure that their facilities afford a safe and welcoming environment for patrons.

The truth is, that on any given day at a busy inner city library — such as Greensboro’s Central Library — a librarian will wear many hats — and may in a matter of moments find himself or herself transitioning from counselor to teacher to conflict mediator.  Above all, and I think in keeping with the social responsibility ethic which forms the foundation of our mission, librarians simply need to enjoy helping people.

But, anyway, yes, libraries are changing.

Missing Library Book Returned . . . After 145 Years

I suppose libraries have just about always had trouble with overdue and missing books. 

Medieval monasteries came up with my favorite solution:  chaining the books to the shelves (or desks) where they were housed.  I doubt we’ll ever do that here at Greensboro Public Library, but I did see an old book case in an antique shop in Asheville once that had a place for a metal bar which ran the length of each shelf; I’m pretty sure the bar was for attaching chains — always have regretted not buying that bookcase!

Anyway, ponder the curious story of the Washington & Lee University volume that went astray during the Civil War and only just found its way back home — after 145 years!  A Yankee soldier nabbed it during a raid in 1864; it had remained with his family and descendants all this time.  An antiquarian book seller in Tryon, North Carolina, named Harry Goodheart (and also a Washington & Lee alumnus) learned of the book and facilitated its return.  It was volume one of a four volume set called History of the War in the Peninsula and in the South of France by W.F.P. Napier.  Amazingly, the university library still owned volume two.  What a happy reunion it must have been! 

By the way, Washington & Lee library staff estimate the late fees (if charged) would be in excess of $52,000!  Now, if you’re holding some overdue Greensboro Public Library books, let this be a cautionary tale. . . .

Libraries Are Getting Busy (As If They Weren’t Already!)

Here’s a News and Record article about how busy the libraries in Greensboro and Rockingham County are getting during these tough economic times.  It includes an interview with Greensboro Public Library Director, Ms. Sandy Neerman. 

Increased library traffic seems to be a national phenomenon.  Lest you think otherwise, check out these reports and articles on libraries in Palm Beach County, Florida; Los Angeles County, California; Palos Verdes Library District, California; Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; Northeast Ohio; Ramsey and Washington Counties, Minnesota; and Madison, Wisconsin

Queens Library (New York City) boasts the largest circulation of any library system in the country; and in August they reported once again another record for circulation during fiscal year 2007-08.   

And here’s an Odum Library blog (Valdosta State University, Valdosta, Georgia) with an MSNBC video clip about the role of libraries during the downturn.

Though this is anecdotal, I think much of the increased traffic must come from job hunters.  I know every day I help people with tasks such as searching for employment and writing resumes. 

Check out this recent post for some of the library’s resources for job hunters.