Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

In Which I Solve the Ebook Library Lending Problem

The big news coming out of ALA Midwinter, besides the news that Dallas is a mediocre conference city, is that the “leaders” of ALA are going to meet today with at least three of the Big Six publishers. Based on the perspectives shared in the LJ article, the meeting promises to be a big mess.

There’s some tough talk from the ALA Executive Director, who said, “I want to assure you that the dialog will begin with us saying ‘you need to deal with libraries and you need to do this as soon as possible,’ then we can have a dialog  starting from there.” I’ve attended a lot of meetings in my time and I’ve never seen one that began so belligerently accomplish anything.

Were I a Simon & Schuster representative – and for all you know I am – my response to that line would be, “Or what?” That sounds mild, but I’d say it in a really hostile tone of voice, and I’d be really menacing and all.

It sounds like a threat, except the ALA has nothing to threaten with. The ebook problem with publishers might be keeping the ALA membership “awake at night” (though I’m an ALA member and I sleep just fine), but a bunch of groggy librarians is neither a carrot nor a stick for the Big Six.

A former ALA president and founder of a publishing company has a more realistic view, more realistic mainly because I agree with her. She says, “I don’t think the [library] field understands publishers. You have to realize you are dealing with a low margin industry and these people are terrified, they don’t know what to do.” If publishers were having no problems, then they would be so hesitant to work with libraries. As she mentions, “just saying you’re bad guys is not going to do it.”

Librarians are feeling threatened, too, and maybe that’s why they’re talking so tough trying to convince themselves. There was a sign at one of the Occupy sites saying, “You know things are bad when the librarians are protesting.” Well, you know things must be REALLY bad when they’re talking like gangsters from The Godfather.

Some librarians seemed to favor protests at the conference itself, as if that was going to accomplish anything. There would have been nothing more pathetic than watching a couple dozen librarians protest in front of the sales reps of publishers. The sales reps already have a financial incentive to sell to libraries, but it’s not like they make policy. They just sell stuff.

Someone must have heard a sniff of a protest, because the ALA Executive Director felt compelled to mention that ALA would bear some “criminal liability” if it orchestrated any protests on the exhibit floor.

As far as I know, no librarians protested, which is for the better. Maybe they were too much like one librarian who thought protests or boycotts would feel like “taking away from the people you serve.” Except when it comes to union negotiations, librarians generally care more about the people they serve than they do about their own professional interests.

The contrast between a university library director and a public library director was striking.

The academic library director said she didn’t buy ebooks unless they came “multi-site and unrestricted number of simultaneous users,” and believes the important thing is to inform “publishers what models they need to offer if they want to market to libraries.” She might be right. Publishers want to make money from libraries, but they need a model that works for them as well as the libraries. Also, the stuff academic libraries need the most is never very popular.

In contrast, the director of a public library and co-chair of the ALA Working Group on Digital Content and Libraries makes a dire case: “As a public librarian whose entire bread and butter is first-run, new, hot stuff, if we lose that we will have to completely reinvent ourselves.”

This is one of the most telling comments I’ve heard come out of public libraries recently, and it leaves a serious question unanswered. Why should public libraries serve up first-run, new, hot stuff? Why should that be their “bread and butter”?

As a librarian and library user, I find the no-ebook-sales-to-libraries policy annoying, stupid, and shortsighted. However, I understand their fears about piracy and intellectual property rights, even if I think those fears are greatly exaggerated.

On the other hand, looking at it from the publisher’s perspective, now that they can control the content, why should they sell the hottest stuff to libraries? That would be like movie studios releasing DVDs alongside their theatrical releases.

Penguin announced new releases wouldn’t be sold to libraries. If that means that at some point after release, maybe 6-12 months after the initial publication, libraries could then buy the ebooks, is that really such a big problem for libraries or their patrons?

Maybe that would be the bait that would lure the other publishers into the library pond. Libraries would be allowed to purchase all their ebooks, but only after a certain amount of time has passed so that publishers can make sure libraries aren’t cutting into the sales of new releases.

Libraries would just have to make do with the knowledge that eventually they would get all the ebooks they wanted.

And library patrons that wanted to read a book quickly could buy it. If they didn’t care when they read it, they could wait a few months to check one out from a library. In the meantime, they could read the printed book from they library if they wanted. People who would wait a year to read the ebook of a previously best selling novel were obviously never going to buy the ebook themselves.

And if the “bread and butter” of libraries is truly in offering the latest hot new thing, then maybe libraries should reinvent themselves. There’s no compelling rationale in all the high minded propaganda about libraries and democracy that would imply libraries had to offer bestselling ebooks at the height of their popularity.

There, problem solved. You’re welcome.



  1. In September 2010, I shared an assessment with attendees of LJ’s first virtual summit on eBooks: “Libraries will not enjoy the same success with eBooks as they’ve had with print books; it’s an entirely different domain with entirely different dynamics.”

    Below are concluding remarks from that presentation which speak to the “reinvention” you are calling for:

    So here’s the really tough question in my mind: with the Collection, Readers’ Advisory and Cost Advantage so disrupted – what value will libraries bring in the eBook domain … and how do we answer that question?

    I think it will involve a conceptual shift from Collections to Collaborations.

    As a start, I’d begin thinking about the various stakeholders in the eBook world (content creators, device makers, publishers, retailers, software developers, users, etc):

    * What skin do they have in the game?
    * What do they need?
    * How can libraries help?

    There are many things libraries won’t have in the eBook domain. Yet they do have things most of the other stakeholders are tripping over themselves to get:

    * Widespread public trust
    * Strong, embodied community

    Libraries have built and maintained this over the past 100 years. They’ve earned it. They’ve nurtured it. The time has come to use it in new and creative ways.

    • Jean, you’re awesome.

    • Jean, do you attend PLA? Just curious. It’s in Philadelphia, which isn’t that far from where you appear to live (MA?)

    • Hi Jonser – I haven’t attended PLA, though would welcome the opportunity. If you have any PLA contacts, have them reach out and we’ll see if my attendance can add any value.

    • I don’t have any “contacts”, but I’m attending (much better than ALA for public librarians) and I was thinking in terms of what value it could give to your knowledge and experience.

    • Joneser – I took a look at the sessions and wonder which you think might be appropriate.

      I’d also welcome any materials/insights you might want to share via email or phone. I’ve developed relationships with library folk around the country & Canada and have frequent dialogue to share ideas, dbl-check my knowledge and perspectives, etc. I’d love to add you to the list of people I converse with because I know you’d really keep me on my toes. Wanna try it? Drop me a line through the contact form on my website and I’ll write back. Jean

  2. “Why should public libraries serve up first-run, new, hot stuff? Why should that be their “bread and butter”?”

    They shouldn’t and it shouldn’t.

    However, I think if I elaborate- or maybe as long as I don’t mention unions- I’ll be accused of self loathing, being bad at my job, etc.

  3. The Librarian With No Name says:

    I have to say, if I were an ebook publisher right now, I wouldn’t be selling to libraries either. They’ve got their hands on a brand new format that gives them an unprecedented amount of control over their product beyond the point of sale which isn’t limited by the first sale doctrine.

    Instead, I’d be doing everything I could to revive the subscription library, basing it on the Netflix model. Twenty bucks a month, one to three ebooks at a time, unlimited checkout time.

    Currently, libraries don’t pose a huge amount of direct competition to a service like Amazon or Netflix in the case of physical materials. Driving to your local library and dodging the homeless to get your name put on a waiting list for a battered novel or scratched DVD that you’ll get charged for if you don’t make it back to the library in two weeks is an entrance fee that drives a healthy number of paying customers to commercial alternatives.

    If libraries get their way with ebooks, though, we’ll be in a position to provide services nearly identical to anything the commercial alternatives can provide. Right now, I can access a public WAN anywhere in the world and download an audiobook to my smart phone for free. If there’s no WAN, I can even do it over the cellular network. Folks with tablets or the latest ereaders can do the same thing with ebooks.

    It’s too easy. The only advantages they have right now are that they have control over what ebooks they let libraries lend and that commercial interfaces are generally easier to use than library websites.

    Publishers are not going to agree to sell electronic versions of popular books to public libraries on the same terms as technical works to academic libraries. They’ve got an active financial disincentive to do so. And as Spencer pointed out in the last post, the entrance fee to get access to ebooks in the first place is high enough that people interested in ebooks can probably afford to pay at least a nominal fee to access them.

    You don’t dictate policy to an industry by threatening to cease activities that they’re not sure they want you to pursue in the first place. In the ebook arena, publishers are pretty sure they don’t need libraries.

    Whether or not libraries need ebooks depends heavily on who you ask, of course.

  4. Someone should tell publishers that all of their books have already been pirated and are available in e-book format on the off-shore sites that caused the whole SOPA ordeal. If they are worried about their book’s being pirated they should start there. Selling to libraries isn’t their biggest issue by a long shot.

    • So true- but injured animals lash out at whatever’s nearest.

      I just can’t believe how shortsighted these people are about this issue.

  5. Why is so hard to understand that first-run, popular, and new books are important to public libraries? It’s pretty simple. Public libraries exist to promote reading. People read more popular books than unpopular books. If public libraries don’t have access to the most popular books, it hurts their ability to accomplish their mission. I don’t understand the suggestion public libraries should not concentrate on providing popular books. Are they supposed to concentrate on collecting books people don’t want to read? The AL rarely misses an opportunity portray academic librarians as smart and practical, while public librarians are dull and weird.

  6. If libraries can’t get hot new titles in eBook format, then they will be reinvented whether they want to be or not, and they will cease to be public libraries as we know them. They will also cease to be visited by 80% of their current patrons, their funding will dry up, and they will disappear from the American scene.

    On the other hand, tremendous profits are awaiting publishers who understand the new world we are in, a world where eBooks (like movies) are for renting as much (or more) than they are for buying. Our national public library network is a ready-at-hand distribution system in close touch with all 330 million potential renter/readers.

    Amazon’s Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (now at 94,000 titles and climbing at the rate of about 1,000 titles a day), has overnight demonstrated the truth of my contention above.

    Publishers, wake up. Get with libraries and start minting money. Don’t let Amazon run away with the whole enchilada.

    The End of Libraries

    • Dale – one of the things I believe most hurts libraries is their penchant for making incredible claims about themselves that are easily dismissed. Referring to librarians as superheroes, ninjas, etc is an example. Citing overblown visitation statistics and publishing articles with preposterous, unsubstantiated statements like the recent Blatant Berry column are others. Your statement that our national public library network is in close touch with 330 million potential renter/readers falls into this category.

      Where I live in central MA, each library is in touch with its own “cult that appeals to only a fraction of the general population”. Their track record on collaboration, promotion and outreach is weak.

      These libraries interact minimally with other municipal offices and with one another. They have a hard time attracting users to their collection, instead circulating the latest popular DVDs, books and magazines and letting all the other holdings go to seed. And they have an even harder time attracting people to their programs. Their record keeping on users is absolutely horrid – with lists of library card holders that are purged so infrequently they contain large numbers of people that have died or moved from the area; websites with forms that don’t work and email lists that contain more bogus than good addresses. These libraries have no inclination or means to meaningfully analyze user transacation history. I know of none that does outreach to “lapsed” users, for example. The attitude seems to be “We’re here and the doors are open. If you come, you come. If you don’t, you don’t.”

      Not all libraries are like this, for sure — but lots are. I’d be cautious about promoting them as a distribution channel large publishers or retailers would be interested in.

  7. Manni Oregian says:

    Like most of these arguments, the truth will probably some day prove to be nearer the middle than any extreme statements. Of course libraries–public or otherwise–won’t die merely for lack of electronic access to all the hottest new titles. Yes, people check those out. They also check out thousands of old titles, and most folks I talk to every day are far more impressed by the wide range of titles we carry that they CAN’T find in Barnes and Noble or often even on Amazon. And although we do have patrons asking for e-books, we still have a much higher percentage of patrons looking for print (just as publishers are still selling a much higher percentage of print), and patrons who still have never touched a computer. Every day library users tell me they have no interest in new electronic gadgets, and most of them are quite content to wait for new books. Library USERS have other things to do with their lives than just read what’s new only because it’s new. It’s only librarians (or mostly library administrators who don’t deal with the public any more) who think people are beating our doors down only to get their hands on the next Harry Potter before their friends all do.

  8. librarEwoman says:

    Manni: Where are your facts to support your belief that “It’s only librarians (or mostly library administrators who don’t deal with the public any more) who think that people are beating our doors down only to get their hands on the next Harry Potter ebfore their friends all do”? The circulation statistics and number of folks on holds lists for new and popular books speak for themselevs at my library: People DO beat down our doors to get their hands on those new and popular books. In fact, our patrons go to even greater lengths to be sure they get their hands on those new, popular releases: If they don’t see that the book is “on order” in our catalog at least several months before it comes out, they send us purchase requests for them, so that when we do order them, their name will be first on the holds list. We don’t just “think” that our patrons want these books; they give us plenty of evidence in their actions to demonstrate it.

    • What percentage of your patron base are these, um, proactive patrons? I know the names of mine, but percentage-wise there aren’t many of them. They just make the most noise.

      And no, I’m not advocating NOT buying these materials, just keeping things in perspective as Manni seems to be doing.

  9. A recent OCLC study ( underscores the urgency of the eBook problem for public libraries. The study suggests that the “80/20 rule,” where 80% of circulation is driven by 20% of the collection, may be understated. They found that 80% of circulation is driven by only 6% of the collection. If publishers won’t sell popular and new titles to libraries, the items that drive most of circulation, public libraries become much less effective at their core function: promoting the behavior of reading. Recommending that public libraries just relax and wait 6-12 months after books are published misses the point that newness is part of what makes items popular.

    • Hi D – for me, these findings signal a much larger problem for public libraries than what happens with eBooks. They suggest a huge degree of wastefulness in the contemporary library enterprise. We spend lots of money on materials that never circulate or circulate minimally along with lots of overhead on staff & infrastructure to maintain such inefficient operations.

      Some of the non-circulating material has preservation value, though not nearly as much as libraries claim. And libraries do more than circulate materials, though collection development and material handling is the lion’s share of what most do.

      What I have been saying openly to the library community and plenty of others are saying amongst themselves is that we can no longer afford to support this lumbering, inefficient enterprise. If people turned their attention to it, I believe it wouldn’t be all that difficult to deliver the same value libraries deliver today for much less cost. Library folk call me a library hater when I say things like this, but all I’m trying to do is extend some tough love here.

      The current state just isn’t sustainable, and I’m concerned that without rethinking and reorienting our library systems we’re gonna lose ’em … and eliminate a lot of good stuff along with lots of waste. We can do better.

    • Yes, there’s plenty of waste in libraries. Changes in the publishing industry and other forces will likely bring about the rethinking and reorienting you mention. That may be good for libraries. You’re right – we can do better.

    • anonymouscoward says:

      Don’t dare mention we could be doing better. Everyone will take it as a personal insult and attempt to metaphorically lynch you.

    • Of course we could do better in terms of wastefulness but those circulation statistics don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes a library just needs to bolster an area of the collection to support its junior college and high school students. If you think public libraries are getting hit hard it is nothing compared to the cuts school libraries are taking.

      Every student that comes in tells me “Yeah, my teacher gave us assignment X and we need at least three book sources”. “I went to the school library and all the books were checked out the first day.” Teachers often don’t contact the PL or SL to tell them about these assignments.

      These books may not drive circulation but as a service to the community we should do our best to support the curriculum of local schools. You can say the same regarding books on medical conditions, self-help, dealing with mental illness in the family, divorce, do-it-yourself, etc. That’s why those numbers are misleading. There are a lot of valuable books and resources that we provide which are situational in nature but we NEED to provide them to our patrons.

    • D & Me, when I said “we can do better”, I meant as a nation wrt our library systems. I’m convinced our libraries will be significantly contracted by the end of this decade, which is what fuels my “radical advocacy”. the contraction will eliminate some waste and bureaucracy — but a helluva lot of good work too.

      It will be one thing if, as a nation, we make this choice consciously. It will be quite another if we simply let things continue to erode to the point where town by town, academy by academy, we retire our libraries because they are no longer worth supporting. Regarding the latter scenario, I say we we can do better — and it’s what I bang the drum for.

      I’m trying to promote a focus on this amazing institution, which civilized societies have deemed worthy of investment for thousands of years, to re-imagine and re-orient it to work as well for us in the next 50 years has it has in the last century. IMO, that focus needs to congeal within the library community if it is to have any chance of resonating with the public. And so I do things like reach out to individuals throughout the ecosystem, hang out here, go to conferences and library schools and do whatever I can to connect with library folk.

      Anonymous Coward: I have been metaphorically lynched through hate mail from library folk, on the listservs (so folks tell me) and on the wide-open internet. It’s been discouraging. I don’t deserve to be deified for my advocacy, but I certainly don’t deserve to be lynched either.

    • someone else says:

      Jean and The Librarian With No Name…thank you for the awesome posts…great summaries of difficult situations and I agree completely.

  10. When I get a fancy new phone, I’m going to try and see if the NFC sensor can read RFID tags. I don’t see why they wouldn’t, and if that’s the case then libraries perhaps have a bit of leverage in this brave new world of e-book publishing. The last remaining bookstore in my town is going out of business, but there are still three libraries. Publishers that have been so desperate for shelf space that they’ve been subsidizing chain bookstores should look at libraries as the last remaining showrooms for their books.

    Imagine a non-circulating new books section that you could browse and with a tap of your phone purchase the ebook. After 90 days, the new books go into circulation on the regular shelves already tagged and cataloged.

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