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Critical Content on Ebooks

Last week a guest column in LJ by a public library system CEO talked up a strategy to get ebooks from major publishers into public libraries. For the most part it seemed very sound and practical, like informing publishers that libraries actually pay for stuff and that they’re perfectly willing to make checking out ebooks as annoying as checking out print books.

But all practicality aside, part of the argument seems slightly disingenuous to me, and since it’s a part that’s not really necessary to a practical engagement with publishers or lawmakers about securing ebooks for public libraries, I’ll point it out so that people can stop talking about it.

The phrase “critical content” appears twice in the column, and the implication is that it’s critical that this content be made available for library patrons for their own sake. For example, unlike the affluent library patrons,

Low-income residents in poorer neighborhoods do not have this sequence of resources and run the risk of not being able to access digital content that will allow them to fairly participate, compete and contribute to the digital economy/world. This content divide goes against the very principles that attracted so many of us to this profession –supporting democracy by providing access to information in the broadest possible context.

It’s not specifically claimed, but it’s definitely implied, that a lack of access to current popular commercial ebooks is in itself harmful to the poor and undermines their ability to “participate, compete and contribute” somehow.

The lack of information and crucial prepositions in that sentence means we can’t be sure what they’re participating in or against whom they are competing, but from the context we might assume they’re participating in the digital economy/world and competing against other people also participating in that economy/world.

It’s also implied that a lack of universal access to current popular ebooks somehow undermines democracy.

Arguments like this confuse the practical issues regarding ebooks, and they take a possible justification for public libraries in general – “supporting democracy by providing access to information” – and apply that justification to a very specific library-related issue.

But it just doesn’t work. If the poor can’t get popular commercial ebooks for free, democracy isn’t undermined at all. And if they can get such ebooks for free, their real position in the digital economy/world isn’t improved in the slightest.

There are numerous, serious, systematic problems facing the poor in America today, but lack of free ebook bestsellers isn’t on that list of problems. Ask the poor about what they want or need the most, and libraries might show up down the list after better jobs, better schools, and better law enforcement, but I doubt anyone would ever think, “oh, what I really need are some bestselling ebooks to load onto my iPad.”

Besides which, nobody with any power cares about the poor anyway.

There’s also a bit on the role of public libraries that is more realistic than talk of supporting democracy.

Our users are being denied access to critical content and the role of public libraries could change forever if this troubling trend is not reversed. We need to catapult user access to commercial content to the top of our digital strategy or preside over our declining purpose in society.

Critical content (i.e., popular commercial ebooks) shows up again, but here we get a better idea of whom that content is critical to. It’s not so much critical for library patrons as it is for libraries, whose “purpose in society” is apparently to lend popular commercial content to people.

Whether that’s the purpose or merely the practice of public libraries is irrelevant, because plenty of librarians believe that is the purpose, and that if libraries can’t lend popular commercial ebooks then they aren’t fulfilling their primary mission.

If that really is the purpose of public libraries, then they probably will go away. I don’t think that is their only purpose, so I think they might stay around longer than some people think, but who knows.

What I do know is that none of this kind of talk is relevant to the two possible tasks that libraries could accomplish regarding ebooks: getting publishers to sell them to libraries and/or getting lawmakers to change copyright laws to allow libraries to purchase and preserve ebooks and other digital content.

Making “user access to commercial content” a top priority is important not because current commercial ebooks are necessary for democracy or helping the poor, even if the poor were a major library constituency. It’s important because in the future there might be no commercial content other than digital content.

It’s not that the poor couldn’t get popular ebooks. It’s that no one could get access to any substantive information content at all without paying individually every time, and no one could preserve that content. That scenario would mean the end of most research, from academic scholarship to DIY projects. Very few people could individually purchase all the information they consume in the course of their lives.

The publishers might think they would benefit from that scenario, although I don’t think they would. Lawmakers should find that a terrible prospect for society, although the idea of using laws to benefit people is anathema to a lot of lawmakers these days.

But that worst-case scenario still won’t persuade publishers who are fearful of their bottom line at best and extinction at worst.

My advice is to stop talking about democracy or about how limited access to popular ebooks means the demise of libraries. Only librarians care about that stuff.

Instead, focus on issues that either publishers or lawmakers can understand and agree on. Libraries make you money. The total absence of libraries would be harmful to society. That’s the critical content. Everything else is irrelevant.



  1. I think what bothered me most about that article was how willing the author was to “play by their rules.” I’m generally all for compromise, but when that compromise is completely dictated by one side, it really isn’t a compromise. The whole one-per-copy thing is just absurd with digital content, and it’s a shame that libraries are willing to sustain this game that publishers are playing just so we can get the new JD Robb ebook to patrons.

  2. the hilarious thing is that the Pew survey found that only about 40% of people even knew that libraries had ebooks. and libraries believed that getting ebooks meant their survival. but 60% of the people didn’t even know libraries had them. yet they use libraries, anyway. or at least don’t want to tear all the libraries down, anyway. so for all our worrying, most people who support libraries don’t care whether they have ebooks.

  3. Mr. Losinski’s proposals are practical and sensible. He’s absolutely correct about the importance of ebooks and popular materials. The rise of digital photography provides a a good lesson on how changes in technology affects whole industries. Digital cameras decimated the film industry in the blink of an eye. Perhaps ebooks and popular materials don’t matter in the academic research libraries AL loves so much, but they matter a great deal to the future of public libraries.

    • Hi D – engaging the example of digital photography would be extremely valuable for libraries, I think.

      I found nothing of value in Losinski’s article. To me the essay read like a rambling, over-the-top expression of library ideology – replete with heroes & villians, scare tactics and empty flag waving.

      What you hint at is far more productive and precisely what I don’t see happening within the library ecosystem. You intuitively scanned a few decades’ experience with digital technology and found an illustrative example from which meaningful insights can be gleaned. How has digital photography emerged and evolved? How has it changed people’s relationship with imagery and use of it? What uses and service providers exist today that were not even conceived of 25 years ago? Which products, services & organizations have been displaced?

      A range of players are thinking in this way: publishers, artists, entrepreneurs, the tech titans. They’re thinking about their roles & resources and how they can add value in a future that is certain to be different than today. They’re thinking about where they want to be in the continuum of leading change and following it, providing products and services, adding human value and technical value.

      Meanwhile, library folk are screaming ever more loudly “we’re here doing what we’ve always done and the rest of you are poopey-heads for not playing with us!” This resonates within the echo chamber and outside it sounds like a mosquito buzzing.

    • Hi Jean. I always enjoy your posts. I think I understand that Mr. Losinski’s essay didn’t resonate with the AL, you, and others. I support his suggestion to seek allies among legislators. The arguments about the importance of libraries in relation to democracies doesn’t make sense to me either. Libraries are just as important in monarchies, oligarchies, and every other form of government.

      Just as you say, the history of digital cameras over the last 20 or so may help us predict what could happen to books. Digital cameras quickly went from expensive items for specialists to inexpensive items for everyone. With fewer people using film and related chemicals for development, film developing became much more expensive, driving even more people to digital cameras. Now, movies are mostly shot on digital cameras and few people use film. Film is no longer a viable option for most people.

      We may be watching a similar process with books. A year ago, about 1/3 less paperbacks were sold and this trend continues. As people buy more ebooks, fewer popular physical books will be sold. These popular books help subsidize the production and shipment of less popular physical books. We may soon reach a point when printing and binding books is too expensive and that industry collapses or becomes an speciality. So if libraries can’t participate fully in ebooks, it will hurt our ability to produce reading.

    • The thing about a legislative strategy is that even if libraries could mount a substantive legislative campaign and achieve legislative action (two big IFs there), the landscape will have changed so much that the gains would not be worth the effort. And the effort will have drawn attention and resources away from what’s really important: figuring out a few significant, durable library “value adds” and re-positioning the profession and Institution to provide them.

      From what I’ve seen, the library community has no appetite for engaging the vital question of durable value. The AL had a great line in “The Silliness Wrap-Up” that summarizes my impression of library-generated dialogue on “libraries of the future”. It’s been short of substance, long on self-expression. There’s no better example of this than Losinski’s closing paragraph:

      The stakes are high. We can’t afford to continue to passively accept one-sided propositions from the publishing industry. The legislative or judicial path we must pursue will not be easy. As public librarians, we must rededicate ourselves to advocate for the public that has counted on us to do so throughout our history. Without such action, we just might be the next Borders or Blockbuster.

    • Hi D – I’m just getting back to the other part of your comment about the future of pBooks. I can foresee what you predict. pBooks might become like film & vinyl recordings today – mediums many people acknowledge are superior but do not use because digital is more convenient and less expensive.

      If digital trends extend to eReaders and eBooks (and why wouldn’t they), prices will drop. This will reduce the perceived value of a digital lending model because the inconvenience of borrowing is simply too great for low-cost items.

      With physical materials & the lending model gone, it leaves the question of what librarians & libraries can offer that the public will deem worth funding? I can think of a handful of things and am curious to know what other AL readers think.

  4. Solo Boy says:

    Maybe I’m dense, but I see two issues not addressed by Losinski:

    With what are his less “affluent” patrons going to read ebooks? Are these less “affluent” patrons spending $75 to $600 to buy ereaders and tablets or even commputers??? Somehow, Losinski spending a small fortunate to purchase ereaders or tablets to lend to his patrons would seem to be overkill!

    And, I can’t remember ever GOING to the local public to download an ebook. Usually I logon to my library with my home $broadband$ internet connection, with my $computer$, to browse for an ebook. This probably explains the PEW statistic of 60% of surveyed people not knowing public libraries have ebooks. They don’t have computers or internet access…much less ereaders or tablets!

    Hhhhmmm. Do we even need libraries to distribute ebooks? Perhaps local municipalities could cut some of their libraries’ budgets and use it to pay Overdrive directly to provide access to ebooks to their citizens. Leave the physical books and other stuff to the brick & mortar libraries.

    DISCLAIMER: While I don’t work at a public library, I’m a regular user…mainly print, with an occasional ebook.


  5. Development Arrested says:

    Ebooks are nice. They’re a cherry on top of the sundae. Too many libraries are filling their cups with cherries with no ice cream. When you eat a bowl of maraschino cherries, you just feel sick.

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