Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Library Ebooks and Small Town Lattes

Getting a library ebook you actually want to read is a lot like getting a latte from a small town diner. You end up with something that from the outside might seem passable, but is far from the real thing. I had experience with both recently and was very disappointed.

After ALA was over, I wanted a vacation, so I took a little road trip to spend a weekend with a friend at a bed & breakfast. Since I wanted to take a break from any reading that might be considered professional or necessary, I decided to try to find some ebooks to read from my local public library.

There are lots of popular print books at my academic library, but we don’t have a lot of ebooks, and I was trying to travel lightly.

I managed to make it to the library website and find the ebook collection easily enough. Then again, I’m a trained librarian. The navigation was simple enough, and I could browse genres, do some searching, etc. So far, so good.

And then, depression set in. There were technically ebooks available through my library, although the vast majority of them were checked out. With print books, it doesn’t matter much, because the selection is so large that there’s usually something to read.

Not so with the ebooks. Those that weren’t checked out weren’t checked out for a reason. They looked really bad, the absolute dregs of whatever genre I might want, from mystery to history. Any author I’d ever heard of or read about was either absent or unavailable.

Eventually I found two ebooks that didn’t look absolutely awful, a recent mystery novel by someone I’d never heard of and an entry in the genre of “The History of a Single Object that I’m Going to Pretend is of Earth-Shattering Importance.” The downloading wasn’t too difficult, though I could forget reading it on my Kindle.

I go on my road trip and I’m passing through a small town and I really need some coffee and a snack. Two more hours to the bed & breakfast. The choice was a McDonalds or a local diner, so not much of a choice. I’d sooner get mugged than eat anything from McDonalds, so the diner it was. It’s hard to screw up scrambled eggs and toast, right?

Wrong. The eggs were greasy and the toast was soggy. But at least they served lattes. I was really craving a latte then, and the driving fatigue dampened the warning signs.

Then I decided to read with my coffee. So there I am, my tablet propped up displaying my mediocre mystery that I got because it was the only one available, drinking my thin, insipid latte because it was the only one available, all the while thinking that this situation, in a word, sucks.

But I learned an important lesson about the illusion of choice. I should have just gotten some black coffee and wolfed it down for the caffeine, but I thought I had a choice. Only it was a choice between a bad thing or no thing at all. Or the choice between something barely tolerable of its kind and something awful of its kind.

The same goes for library ebooks. Bad selections, long waits, little real choice. I should have spent a few bucks for a Kindle book I might actually want to read than put up with a bad choice that happened to be free.

Maybe that situation will change, and maybe at other libraries it’s a different story. But if my experience is common, library ebooks are a mug’s game.



  1. Weren’t you the one who shouted from up in your ivy tower: “Who cares about popular fiction e-books in public libraries”! Now you’re complaining about the lack of selection?

  2. AL, this post made me so happy that I started to do a little “I told you so” dance. I remembered your “Why should libraries focus on popular books” post from February 2012 and thought, the AL finally understands just how smart I am and this is her way of saying, D, you were right and I was wrong. If only I had listened to your wise words, D, then maybe I’d be reading Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” on my KIndle right now.

    You’re probably aware, AL, that public libraries are just beginning to build their collections, so we don’t have a lot of ebooks yet. Publishers aren’t helping us much – we can’t buy any ebooks from 4 out of 6 of the biggest publishers. The big six sell the popular stuff – the books you want to take on vacation. Random House will sell us ebooks at a 300% mark up. So if a print book cost $40, we pay $120. Try building a popular collection at those prices. Thank god for mean old Harper Collins and their 26 licenses. At least they’ll sell us something new and popular at prices we can afford.

    By the way, I’m kind of old fashioned and whenever I read that something “sucks,” I wonder if the word used as slang originates from felacio.

  3. Public Librarian says:

    You should have gone to McDonalds. They’ve really improved the coffee menu and the lattes and mochas are cheap and tasty. Also, there are lots of free ebooks that you can download. Pancakes, hash browns, a mocha, and an E. Nesbit ebook is hard to beat.

  4. I agree when all else fails a good free ebook is always a good choice..youcan’t go wrong with Jane Austen or Sherlock Holmes, or Dracula. On the Kindle there are free deals all the time..cheesy lil books but they exist. At one Point I remeber Tic Tock by Patterson was a freebie. I think a lil more research was necessary if your PL was out of the brand new good stuff.

  5. This would be why I maintain accounts with the four local libraries in places I have lived over the past two years. I find the selection is much better in major midwestern cities than on the east coast, but I’m quite pissed that Cleveland Metro has cut my access (my parents still pay taxes on property there… but I doubt the library would let me renew online from Asia?), as they had one of the best collections of all :-\

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