I’ve been wondering about ebooks and libraries for a while, in particular about where things are going in terms of library use of ebooks. What caught my eye this week was a blog post on the Publishers’ Weekly blog here by Peter Brantley about Penguin pulling their ebooks out of the Overdrive system. The bit that particularly caught my attention was this statement:
I am very sympathetic to the sobering prognosis that in the longer run there’s not much future for libraries in providing access to ebooks. If for no other reason, it is likely that ebooks will evolve into a great variety of objects, some of which are widely distributed on the net and not neatly packaged; many others will be enhanced into proprietary versions that will only work on a single platform.
The thing that particularly interested me in the quote was that there is the assumption that these are insurmountable ‘technical’ issues that would stop libraries from lending ebooks. And I don’t know that any library would consider that to be the case. I doubt that many people would suggest that the currrent format of ebooks is in any way a finished article, I’m sure that they will change and evolve over time. But whatever the format, libraries will still see their role as trying to connect the user with the content.
The platform issue puzzles me slightly. I think there are interesting parallels with the early days of video, where VHS won out over Betamax, and in more recent time when BluRay came through. If you turn and look at computer games, then the different platforms still continue to co-exist, and many libraries lend selections of material in different formats. I’m not sure that it is the platform that is the issue with ebooks. Yes some of the formats and platforms may die, in the way that music cassettes largely disappeared as CD took over. But the issue seems to me more to do with the publishers and platform providers positioning themselves for competitive advantage and not wanting to open their content up to a readership through libraries.
If you set aside the format issue for a moment and you look at the model that academic libraries have been able to take with providing access to ebooks. Then we see them providing access to ebooks from different publisher collections with direct links to the ebooks on publishers websites, sometimes with ebook metadata added into the library catalogue or knowledge base to provide direct access. Now I know that public libraries largely don’t have the infrastructure to provide remote access to collections of electronic material in this way so they have tended to go with a single aggregator. But it seems to me that building and mantaining an infrastructure to let public libraries continue to provide access to ebooks, either as a collaborative shared service or as a commercial service (such as Overdrive) isn’t a particular issue.
Where format is an issue, is in terms of how the end-user uses the content. While the ebook publication model is currently based mostly, it seems to me, on trying to lock users into a proprietary platform, it seems to me that we will see changes to that model over time. Maybe the number of platforms will shrink, maybe the formats will start to move towards a standard, or one platform/format become dominant. So if ebook publishers or aggregators want to make their material available through libraries, then there isn’t insurmountable ‘technical’ issues to stop that happening.
Which seems to leave the argument being about whether publishers and aggregators want their ebook content available through libraries. And it seems to me that the reasons why publishers might want their content to be lent through libraries are exactly the same reasons why printed books are lent through libraries, it encourages reading, it encourages literacy and surveys suggest that library readers are also heavy purchasers of books. So if you want to get people into the habit of reading, using and buying ebooks, especially when you are building a new market, wouldn’t you want to use all means to encourage people to try out ebooks?