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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Creating serendipity in the digital world

We’ve all enjoyed browsing the web or the shelves of a library, and stumbling upon an unexpected writer or subject. This type of serendipity is a happy accident, as are many of life’s most memorable experiences. How does serendipity play out as libraries move into the digital landscape, and are we losing serendipity on the web?

A recent article explores whether personalisation of the web will ultimately destroy discovery. As the content we see is personalised through the use of cookies and algorithms we begin to lose the opportunity to discover interesting but unrelated content. I balk at the idea of the web being tamed and already feel sentimental for the days of the wild digital frontier. On the flipside, I’m as time poor as the next person, and can see the benefits of being directed towards content similar to that which I’ve explored and enjoyed before. I’d much rather be directed to this content through content curation than computed algorithms.

And what of digital library collections? Can you arrange a digital library to replicate the experience of browsing the shelves? Another recent article looks at the Prelinger Library in San Francisco where the physical collection is arranged on geographic principles to simulate the experience of the library ‘as a map’. The library’s founders discuss the complementary nature of analog and digital library collections. They explain how the two formats can dovetail together to enhance the browsing and discovery experience.

These two articles raise interesting ideas about serendipity in the digital world from quite different perspectives. Let’s hope we never lose the chance to have happy accidents.