I wrote a piece about ebooks and libraries that appeared in Sunday’s edition of Solares Hill. If you are not a Citizen subscriber, or you didn’t happen to buy a copy of Sunday’s paper, I’m afraid I can’t tell you a way to look at the piece.
I can, however, give you a little explication on my attitude toward ebooks: If you like them, great. If you fear them, relax. No one, at least in the world of the public library, is going to force you to use them instead of old-fashioned print books. And I think all the doomsayers who predict the end of Civilization As We Know It are wallowing in their own bitterness and I just don’t see the point. Sure, civilization as we know it is changing. That’s what it does. Some of the changes are good, others not so much. But constantly calling out all new developments as harbingers of evil is just tiring. And sad. Who wants to be angry all the time? If you only want to read books on paper, knock yourself out.
And what about libraries? We could be in for some rocky times as the digital tidal wave that has already swamped newspapers now reaches us. But we’re trying to do what we’ve always done, which is provide people with reading material and information for their edification and entertainment. Already, in the world of reference, online is the way to go. And as the world goes online, public libraries play an increasingly important role in providing online access and guidance for those who don’t have or can’t afford computers and internet access on their own. Possibly general interest books will go largely digital, too. But I think it will be awhile. The Monroe County Library’s ebook collection, as of this writing, is 549. Our collection of physical books numbers around 150,000.
A couple interesting developments that have come to my attention since I wrote the piece. One is that charging as much for an ebook as for a hardcover may not be as outrageous as I once thought. This piece from Digital Book World made me reconsider and I certainly favor publishers spending money on important things like author advances, editors and marketing. However … it’s one thing to charge $30 or the hardcover equivalent of a book. It’s another to triple the prices for libraries (and libraries only) like Random House has done. Their theory seems to be that elending at libraries is just too easy so more readers will borrow instead of buy; but surely they realize from decades of experience with physical books that frequent book borrowers are also frequent book buyers, who may well be inclined to snap up a writer’s backlist or recommend a title to their friends? Like many librarians, I was also unhappy with HarperCollins’ decision to limit library checkouts to 26 per license. Some library books fall apart (or go missing) sooner than that. But others hang around for years and years.
I’ve been waiting for someone to figure out the appropriate model for library ebook lending … and I think a good candidate just appeared. The folks over at Pottermore, the J.K. Rowling empire, are licensing the Harry Potter series as ebooks (yep, we’ve got all seven of them in the Monroe County Library digital collection). They cost $28, around the price of a quality hardcover. And they expire after five years, which seems like a reasonable length of time for a popular title. In fact, such expirations based on time rather than number of checkouts could serve as a sort of self-weeding mechanism for libraries — popular titles would, one presumes, be re-licensed while others would be quietly allowed to expire, much as we do today with weeding the shelves. Only without all the cardboard boxes and magic markers.
Now someone just has to figure out how to loan ebooks on an interlibrary basis. And how patrons can donate their copies if they wish. I have faith that somewhere in libraryland, someone smarter than me is already working on both tasks.