Ebooks and libraries: the digital disruption

Ebook publication and use has grown exponentially over the last few years. Libraries, publishers and rights holders are all struggling to adapt to the new digital landscape, and to find a workable commercial model which preserves rights and revenue, but also meets the information needs and preferences of library users.

The Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) held a think tank (#aliathinktank) in Melbourne today to explore some of the issues for libraries related to ebooks and elending. Similar sessions are being held around the country. From these think tanks, ALIA hopes to develop a sector response to assist libraries to navigate the challenges associated with collecting and lending ebooks. ALIA has developed an issues paper on the topic.

We heard from several speakers who presented from the perspectives of different types of libraries, including public, academic, state and special libraries. Panel sessions invited audience participation and dissected the issues raised in the presentations.

While ebooks promise many advantages such as reducing shelf space, and meeting user preferences for digital content and 24/7 access, there are also many challenges facing libraries in relation to ebooks. Libraries account for around 12% of book sales in Australia, so they don’t have great market power. There are difficulties negotiating reasonable contractual terms with publishers and ebook aggregators. Costs are high and escalating. There are a lack of consistent ereader devices and ebook formats. Technologies for searching and discovery do not integrate well. Ebooks are not being developed to offer the functionality promised by the digital content experience. There are licencing and lending restrictions. Libraries perceive a lack of engagement by publishers to understand their role. It is a bleak picture.

Publishers are also facing uncertain times in the wake of ebook popularity. The presenters raised thoughtful points on the opportunities for libraries in this environment. Library associations around the world are increasing their advocacy efforts to raise the public awareness of the role of libraries. Libraries hold library usage data that is of value to publishers. They meet a market demand for those who want free access to ebooks. Libraries create new audiences for buying books. They build spaces to encourage interaction with ereading. Libraries train and educate the public in ereader technologies. They provide a nexus between print and digital content. Libraries can influence publishers to produce content that meets the information needs and preferences of readers.

These are all positive and interesting points but they are not ground breaking. After 600 years of print as the dominant technology for reading, ebooks are part of a digital content revolution. As the think tank progressed it became clear that the response needed by libraries is to break and rebuild the library business model. The music industry, magazines, newspapers and publishing are all seeing their old business models disintegrate and be reimagined. Libraries are no different.

Ebooks are merely containers for content. The containers will be replaced by new ones. Just think of VHS, floppy discs and CDs. Libraries should focus on their role in facilitating access to content. Maybe this means self-publishing, forming direct relationships with authors, and curation of content. Perhaps it means becoming co-producers in partnership with publishers or others. Or it might be facilitating access to content through education, training and integration into the workflows of users. It is probably a combination of these depending on the library and the context in which it operates.

At a fundamental level libraries need to ask: what is their core purpose? Who are they serving? Who are they competing with? What is their role?

Whatever the future, it is disruptive. Ebooks are the thin end of the digital wedge. It will be fascinating to see how ALIA and the library sector responds to the challenge.

Presentations from the think tank will be available on the ALIA website.

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4 thoughts on “Ebooks and libraries: the digital disruption

  1. I found it to a be a strange format for ascertaining the views of the library sector – I would have thought a workshop type of arrangement would be better for that. However I think your conclusion is spot on. Corin Haines had it right, I suspect, when he suggested we’ll probably see an outside player knock everything sideways. The trick here will be for libraries to disrupt ourselves and rise up phoenix-like to keep facilitating the sharing of ideas in a new way. Otherwise we’re just waiting for death.

    • I agree on the format. It could have been more interactive. And on reflection I wonder if it’s the right topic to be focusing on, given ebooks are just an example of a broader digital content shift

      • Hi Justine, I think you are correct re the broader digital shift. I perceive a real danger in us focusing too much on e-books and missing the wider picture.

    • Hi Hugh….. just catchin up on this. Thanks for the mention of my comment at the Think Tank. I do believe this sort of destabilisation needs to happen and I live in hope. I just hope that libraries are able to reinvent themselves within this and present themselves as a beacon of access to content. Wailing and wringing of hands will not resolve this one 🙂 Also, I hear great things about your talk to VALA the other week 🙂

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