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Magazines > Searcher > April 2012
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Vol. 20 No. 3 — April 2012
The Decline and Fall of the Library Empire
by Steve Coffman
Vice President, Library Support Services, LSSI — Library Systems and Services

The past 30 years of library history is littered with projects and plans and sometimes just dreams of ways the library might play a more pivotal role in the digital revolution that continues to transform the information landscape around us. Some of those projects never really got off the ground.

Web Directories

Remember those heady early days when we thought we were going to catalog the web? OCLC even set up a whole project for this task back around the turn of the century (sounds like a long time ago, doesn’t it?). It was called CORC, or Collaborative Online Resource Catalog. Librarians around the world were supposed to select and catalog “good, librarian-certified” web resources. There was even talk of assigning Dewey numbers to websites — an idea which I’m sure would have brought tears to the eyes of many, especially our patrons. Today, the only evidence you can find of CORC is a few sentences in a list of abandoned research projects on the OCLC website and some links to PowerPoints and articles saluting it — most now more than 10 years old.

Of course, OCLC was not the only outfit to try it. Almost every library felt the responsibility to stuff its website with long and often elaborately annotated lists of web resources for just about everything. And there were lots of collaborative projects to develop “librarian-built” directories of web resources. The Librarians Index to the internet is a good example from the public library side, and the Infomine project at the University of California–Riverside is an example of many from the academic side. Many of these projects were grant-funded and died off when the money ran out. Some still linger — used mostly by librarians, as they have always been — as the rest of the world rushes right by our (sometimes) carefully tended websites and directories on the way to Google, Bing, and other search engines.

Library 2.0

Jumping ahead a few years, we have Library 2.0. Some may feel that it is too early to write this off … even if we could all agree upon what it is supposed to be. Basically, Library 2.0 was intended to allow library users to interact with librarians and each other online using a variety of new social tools developed for the web. It was meant to include patron-contributed reviews and rankings, tagging, blogs, Twitter posts, Facebook sites, and so on. Even a cursory look at some of the more highly regarded Library 2.0-styled websites suggests that this idea may not be going very well. It seems that any conversations we may be having are largely with ourselves, while our patrons are busy contributing reviews and doing all sorts of other cool, interactive things on Amazon, Goodreads, LibraryThing, and the hundreds of other places people get together online to compare notes on books.

Take Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition as an example. The book came out in 2009 to all sorts of critical acclaim, spent months on the nonfiction best-seller lists, and became one of the primary sources for the Ken Burns documentary on Prohibition for PBS. So, there has been plenty of time and occasion for people to talk about the book. And that’s just what people have been doing on sites such as Goodreads (280 user reviews and 684 ratings for the book when I last checked), LibraryThing (381 members had cataloged it, 18 contributed reviews, and the title had been mentioned in 21 “conversations” on the site), Amazon (112 customer reviews), and B&N (82). So the title generated a lot of discussion and activity at places people go to talk about books. Sadly, that does not seem to include libraries. King County, Library Journal’s “Library of the Year,” which serves a population of 5 million, had only one patron-contributed review. Cleveland Public, which serves a population of 2 million, also had only a single patron review of the title.

Why? I think the reason Web 2.0 technologies have not taken off on library sites is not because people don’t love us — they do, they tell us so all the time. It’s because libraries are preeminently local institutions and our websites attract a limited number of people primarily from the local community. Since only a very tiny percentage of the people that visit any site will end up contributing to it, we lack the critical mass of users needed to create and sustain robust online interaction and communication. While in contrast, sites such as Goodreads, Amazon, and others draw from the entire country and sometimes even the world. So while Library 2.0 made good conference fodder for a while, the realization is, it has failed to reach its goals.

Virtual Reference

Some concepts that have gotten librarians all excited have clearly not interested the patrons we hoped to serve. The classic example here is virtual reference. Back in 1999, Ann Lipow wrote a piece for Library Journal called “In Your Face Reference,” in which she claimed that in order for library reference services to remain relevant to the modern user, we needed to take advantage of the new chat and interactive web technologies to join our users online, where we could be “in their face” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We should stand by to help patrons search a database, find a book or article, or answer just about any question they had before they could click the Google button. That article — and several hundred others that came out about the same time — set off a veritable feeding frenzy among librarians. I ought to know: I was selling virtual reference technology at the time. We were helping libraries set up new virtual reference services on almost a weekly basis, and our training backlog stretched out for months, the demand was so great. OCLC and the Library of Congress had a big project called QuestionPoint to enlist libraries around the world to offer 24/7 service. It carried its own knowlegebase where librarians would catalog all of the questions they answered to help automate answering the huge volume of questions expected. A variety of other commercial firms jumped into the fray once they caught the smell of cash from the state libraries and other grant-making agencies — as well as libraries themselves — doling out money to help set up these services.

All of this was accompanied, of course, by a deluge of conference sessions, papers, and articles on every conceivable minutia of virtual reference. In fact, for a few years, the field got so popular, it even had its own conference, David Lankes’ Virtual Reference Desk conference.

The problem is, when we gleefully flung open the doors of our brand new and pretty costly virtual reference services, we found we’d thrown a party but nobody came. Now, let me be careful here. Some of these services still remain and, I’m sure, still serve some people … just as our regular reference desks still serve some people. But the numbers served are nothing like what Lipow and the rest of us thought we would get when we moved our library reference services online. The virtual services did nothing to reverse the precipitous decline of usage for library desk reference services that began with the advent of the search engines and continues unabated to this very day. Nor were the paltry stream of patrons that visited our services enough to justify their continued funding. Most libraries closed them down or merged them with other services once the initial grant money ran out.

Today, although virtual reference is still around — now supplemented by “text” and SMS — it is a mere shadow of its former self. Most of the commercial vendors closed up shop. The QuestionPoint [] 24/7 service stays in the business, probably because it does not have quite the same profit requirement as the commercial services. The Virtual Reference Conference is gone and, while you can still find a few programs on virtual reference at regular library conferences, today it’s far more likely to be a “talk table” than a room jampacked with hundreds of avid librarians, the way it was back in the old days.

We shouldn’t feel too bad, though; hundreds of other commercial question-answering services have also closed up and blown away, including some, such as Google Answers, funded by companies with very deep pockets. In fact, the only services that seemed to have succeeded in this area — albeit in a pretty modest fashion — are those such as Yahoo! Answers and a few others that allow you to ask questions of anybody on the internet, regardless of their expertise or qualifications. All of which goes to show that there seems to be little perceived room or need for librarians on the web to handle the brief, routine, factual questions that had been the stock in trade of our reference services.

Intermediated Searching

Then there are those tasks we did well for a while until new and better technologies came along and superseded us. Anybody remember database searching? Well, for those of you who might be a bit too young, there was a time, not so very long ago, when you pretty much needed a librarian if you wanted to do any kind of an online search. Back in the days before the internet, “going online” meant dialing up any of the several dozen commercial database suppliers with names such as Dialog, SDC-Orbit, BRS, and the like. In order to get information out of these systems, you had to know a little something about Boolean logic and have training and experience in using the various arcane search “languages” that differed from vendor to vendor. You had to know what you were doing — no end users need apply — because mistakes were horribly costly. Type the wrong command and you could rack up hundreds of dollars in unexpected charges. Only trained intermediary searchers, namely librarians, could do a good job, one worth the expense. So for a few years, there we librarians were sitting in the catbird seat. We had the databases, we knew how to search them, and we could do it economically — and people flocked to take advantage of our services. Well, maybe it was a small flock, but an elite one.

But all that changed with the development of the web. Online information that had once been tied up in expensive databases was now available on the web — much of it for free. And you didn’t have to ask — or wait — for a librarian to get it for you.

Libraries have continued to make many of the original proprietary databases available through our websites, but patrons now search them on their own. And if the usage statistics in public libraries are any indication, many of the general interest databases that libraries have worked so hard to promote appear not to interest the public anyway, especially in comparison with all the free information readily locatable through Google and other sources.

Of course, you may point out that people still need research assistance for those situations when Google isn’t enough or when the information can’t be found online at all. This is the “we may not need libraries, but we’ll always need librarians” argument. But there’s nothing that says librarians will be called upon to do the research. After all, research skills have been part and parcel of many professions from the beginning: Lawyers, journalists, historians, doctors, scientists, writers — you name it —have done research too. What made librarians uniquely qualified for reference service is that, at one time, we were the only ones with ready access to large collections of information in one place — whether that information was in books or databases — and we were trained and skilled at finding it. But that uniqueness is no longer ours or anyone’s. The aggregation of information on the web far exceeds that of any library reference collection — print or electronic.

Now that searching is as easy as typing words in a box, knowledge of the subject area is far more important than an understanding of Boolean logic or arcane command languages. Future researchers are much more likely to come directly from the ranks of the professions they serve than from library science programs.

You could also still make the case that libraries provide patrons with affordable access to online information by negotiating deals with database vendors and then providing access for free. But evidence suggests that libraries are no longer the bargain they once were. First, many of the databases libraries used to pay for, including Medline, ERIC, the U.S. Patent and Trademark databases, and many newspaper and periodical full-text archives, are now available free online for anybody to search. Many of the databases that do charge now offer relatively inexpensive individual subscriptions for those who need to search them regularly, and many sell reasonably priced reports and daily “passes” or time-limited access for those who need the databases only occasionally.

Though some vendors who provide “institutional” subscriptions to libraries for a premium price do offer the libraries more data or more functionality, others hobble their library services with restrictions on use — such as limiting access only to library computers. Vendors live in fear of cannibalizing a revenue-generating market. Even if libraries can save their patrons a little money, library databases are no longer the bargain they once were and often come at quite a cost to both the patron and the library.

It was a great ride while it lasted, but the library as a research center — staffed by highly skilled librarians who alone could unlock its secrets — has come and gone. And although some of us still stand on the sidelines proclaiming that people really ” need us to find good information on the net, our plummeting reference statistics show that our patrons are paying us little heed. They are far too busy using the new and better technology.

Public Access Computing

This same process may be at work undermining another core library service — public access computing. When the internet was first made available to the general public back in the late 1990s, it was a pretty expensive proposition. You needed to have a computer and a modem (sold separately back in those days), both of which were quite pricey. Then you needed to subscribe to an ISP, which would set you back another $250–$300 per year, plus the price of the phone line. So few people could afford the internet. That gap got named the “digital divide” and public libraries set about trying to bridge it — with a lot of help from the Gates Foundation.

Statistics show libraries have done a pretty good job providing public access computing. Today, nearly 100% of all public libraries offer public internet access. The number of public access PCs has gone from almost nothing in the early 1990s to nearly 100,000 in 2000, and by 2009 — the latest IMLS data available — that number had more than doubled to 232,505. So, during the past 20 years, public internet access has grown into a mainstay of public library service. That growth has not come without problems — most notably the issues of pornography and filtering. Still, the evidence indicates that public internet access is a valuable service and that the public has flocked to take advantage of it. A 2010 study by the Gates Foundation showed that more than 77 million people — or nearly a third of the entire U.S. population — were using libraries to access the internet and doing it for all manner of reasons — keeping up with friends via social sites or email, doing homework, filling out job applications, researching employers, and all those other activities we engage in on the internet. Many of these people would not have been able to engage in those activities without the public internet PCs at their local public library.

However, a growing body of evidence suggests that — despite our impressive accomplishments — the days of the public internet access PCs in libraries may be numbered. A combination of new technologies and easier, cheaper access to the web has begun to eliminate our importance as an internet access enabler, the same as similar changes have eliminated our role in providing online searching. According to the Pew Survey on Internet & American Life, in June 1995 — about the time libraries were beginning to buy their first public access PCs — only a little more than 10% of the American public had access to the internet — meaning almost 90% were without access. Today those percentages have almost — not quite — reversed. Pew reports that as of April 2011, more than 78% of the U.S. population now has access to the internet — not quite as many as have access to a telephone (94%) or a television (99%), but definitely headed in that direction. And it may not really have all that far to go, because Pew reports that nearly half of the 20% of the population that is not using the internet reports that they don’t believe it is “relevant to their life.”

Of course, not all internet access is created equal — and at this point, only 66% of the U.S. population has broadband internet access at home, meaning that 22% of them still endure dial-up — a very good reason to head down to the library and take advantage of the (usually) faster connection. But that divide — or what’s left of it — is also closing, aided by bundled phone, cable, and internet packages offered by all major phone and cable companies.

Last but not least, you have the rapid adoption of the new smartphone technology that connects an ever-growing number of people to the web through their cellphones, regardless of where they happen to be and at any time of the day or night. Fully 91% of the entire U.S. population currently owns a cellphone, and that number includes every man, woman, and child, not to mention all races and income levels. Of these, Nielsen reports that about 40% had switched to a smartphone with web access as of summer 2011, and, with an adoption rate of 1.5–2% per month, smartphones would reach 50% of market by the end of 2011. At this rate, it won’t be very long before a significant majority of the U.S. population is running around with web access in their pockets or purses or snapped on their belts.

This is quite a different picture from when libraries first got into the internet access business 15 years ago. In fact, in a world where internet access is almost ubiquitous, it is hard to see the library’s role. Of course, there will continue to be a small percentage of the population so destitute that it cannot afford a smartphone or home connection — just as there are very small percentages that cannot afford phones or televisions. And since it’s still hard to fill out an application or print something on a smartphone, people will still need access to a full keyboard or a printer occasionally. But that sort of use won’t suffice to justify those big banks of public access terminals currently crowding our libraries. During the next several years, I bet we will see a significant decline in the demand for internet access in libraries.

In fact, public library statistics have already begun to show the first signs of that decline. Despite all the talk about large numbers of job seekers and others crowding around public library PCs as a result of the current recession, the statistics indicate otherwise. IMLS statistics for 2008 and 2009 show that, although there were large increases in the number of public access PCs available in libraries in both those years, per-capita usage of PCs actually declined from 1.22 in 2007 to 1.21 in 2008 — the first year of the recession. Although it was back up to 1.23 in 2009, overall internet usage for the years 2007–2009 was stagnant, even while there was strong growth in other areas, including visits (5.7%), circulation (5.2%), and program attendance (22.4%). More recent figures from California continue to show that even though California libraries increased the number of public computers available by 5.94% from 2008/2009 to 2009/2010, the total number of computer users dropped 0.3% during the same period. While not a large drop, it’s hardly what you would expect given both the substantial increase in the number of computers available and the dismal state of the California economy. That, coupled with the increasingly empty computer stations at some of our more affluent libraries, is enough to suggest people are finding new and more convenient ways to get on the internet and that our longtime role in bridging the digital divide may be coming to an end.


Lastly, let’s turn our attention to ebooks — our most recent electronic fascination and something many of the self-styled library digiterati are already hailing as a sort of “Great White Hope” that will restore our relevance in a digital world. Certainly there can be no doubt that ebooks have caught on with the general public. Amazon and Barnes & Noble have both reported more ebooks are being sold than paper books. The growth in the ebook market has been so strong, it’s led some publishing pundits such as Mike Shatzkin to predict that an 80% ebook world for straight narrative text is coming in 2 to 5 years (Shatzkin, Mike. “Is an 80% Ebook World for Straight Text Really in Sight?” The Idea Logical Company blog, posted Oct. 21, 2011 []). Whether you agree with those sorts of wild predictions or not, there is a general consensus in the publishing industry that the ebook era has definitely arrived and has already begun changing the way books are produced, sold, and read in some pretty fundamental ways.

Ebooks have also been generating similar levels of excitement among the library community. There are now dozens of programs on them at every conference, all jammed with hundreds of eager librarians — just as in the heyday of virtual reference — only more so. Library Journal has put on several “eBook summits’” with breathy titles such as “eBooks — The New Normal” and “eBooks — The Digital Shift.” In fact, School Library Journal now has a regular section called The Digital Shift, whose logo shows a book disintegrating into a bunch of pixels. The professional literature has swelled with articles on the subject and the blogs are buzzing with posts.

All this interest is attracting the usual complement of vendors hoping to take advantage of the excitement. OverDrive was the first major player in the public library market and, as of this writing, claims to serve about 15,000 libraries worldwide. But it has quickly attracted competition from major companies such as 3M, ProQuest, Baker & Taylor, Ingram, and others. Although IMLS and state library statistical reports are not yet counting ebook usage separately, some of the libraries that offer ebooks have reported large increases in circulation. For example, Seattle Public Library claims its ebook circulation jumped by 92% in 2010; New York Public says it in-creased 81% in 2011; and the Kansas State Library reported a tenfold increase in ebook circulation between 2006 and 2010, leading to a 700% increase in its OverDrive bill. To be sure, we are talking early days here, and it’s not that hard to achieve large percentage increases when you’re dealing with small numbers — after all going from 10 to 100 is a tenfold increase. Still, there is definitely a palpable excitement about the potential of ebooks — leading many among us to envision a bright future where millions of patrons will come flocking to library websites to download the latest copies of best-sellers, romances, mysteries, and other popular titles — just as they now use our print collections. However, evidence suggests that libraries will have some serious issues with ebooks. It’s highly unlikely that your local public library will be transformed into a sort of free Netflix for digital books anytime soon. Certainly, not if publishers and online bookstores have anything to say about it — and they will.

Publishers don’t really seem to want libraries involved in the ebook market. As of this writing, four of the six major U.S. publishers — Simon & Schuster, MacMillan, Hachette, and Penguin — will not sell frontlist ebooks to libraries, period. Two of them — Simon & Schuster and MacMillan — won’t provide libraries with any ebooks at all; HarperCollins limits libraries to 26 ebook circulations — and then the library is required to buy a new copy. Add to that strict geographic restrictions on which library patrons may access library ebooks, complex digital rights management schemes making it difficult for library users to download books, and the fact that libraries are commonly forced to purchase ebooks at full retail price or more. It is becoming pretty obvious that library ebook lending is not something publishers want to encourage. And it’s not just libraries. Both publishers and authors have come down hard on Amazon’s new Library Lending Program that allows Amazon Prime members to borrow one ebook per month from a list of about 75,000 titles. None of the Big Six would allow their titles to be included in the program, and a number of other publishers and authors whose titles were included in the Amazon program without their permission are threatening legal action.

Publishers and authors are not taking this hard line stance because they don’t like libraries or because they just want to be mean and nasty. They have a very real concern that giving away free copies of ebooks could cannibalize potential sales of those same titles, and that too much free material in the marketplace devalues the prices they can charge for their books. Frankly, publishers and authors have every reason to be concerned. They need look no farther than the implosion of the music industry for what can happen when too much content becomes available for free — except in that case, it was pirates providing the content, not libraries; still, the overall effect was the same.

For an example a little closer to home, look at what’s happened to the home DVD market — in which sales have declined 43% since peaking in 2006 — a decline the studios blame largely on the rise of “Netflix, Red Box and video on demand rental services” (The New York Times, “A Bid to Get Film Lovers Not to Rent,” Nov. 12, 2011). Libraries — where DVDs often account for 40% or more of the total circulation — are not specifically fingered in this article, but if low-cost rental services can wreak such havoc in the DVD market, just imagine what free can do.

Libraries haven’t taken all of this lying down. Libraries have countered publisher claims that they damage the marketplace by pointing out that libraries help create customers by introducing our patrons to an author’s work for free, and then, once they get hooked, they go on to purchase additional titles. Library Journal even came out with a survey showing that ebook borrowers “are also active book buyers who make many of their purchasing decisions based on the authors or books they first discover in the library. In fact, over 50 percent of all library users go on to purchase books by an author they were introduced to in the library.” There is no doubt that giving away content for free is an important driver of ebook sales. A Book Industry Study Group (BISG) report from April 2011 indicates that “receiving a free/promotional sample chapter” was the leading reason people cited for purchasing an ebook. More than 30% of the respondents stated that they had purchased a book on this basis, while 25% said they bought an ebook after receiving a free or promotional ebook by the same author. Free ebooks are a major component of the digital marketplace; in November 2010, the BISG reports that 48% of all ebooks downloaded were free; by January 2011, that number had grown to 51%. This data would seem to vindicate the contention of librarians that giving away material for free helps drive sales.

And indeed it does. There’s only one little problem. The free content BISG was referring to wasn’t coming from libraries. The free introductory chapters were coming from the publishers and retailers themselves or, in some cases, directly from the authors. Amazon alone offers 1.2 million titles for free; Barnes & Noble claims to have more than a million free titles. Both of them are dwarfed by the millions of free titles Google is bringing online from its library scanning program. So while free is good, and free certainly helps drive ebook sales, libraries are no longer the only game in town when it comes to giving away books.

The e-retailers are offering far larger collections of free material than are found in all but our very largest libraries — and you never have to bring them back. When it comes to giving away promotional chapters or ebooks for free, that is something publishers can now do for themselves and with much greater precision and control over their offerings than libraries could ever supply. For example, publishers could regulate exactly the amount and type of content to give away and to whom to generate the maximum number of sales. While we librarians like to argue that we are “partners” with publishers in turning people onto books and authors, the facts suggest that we are really a pretty blunt instrument when it comes to driving book sales, and that publishers and authors now have much better options when they want to give away stuff for free.

The fact that librarians need to worry about what publishers think at all points out another serious problem with ebooks in libraries — libraries don’t own them. With print books, libraries have always operated under the “first sale doctrine” — a section of the Copyright Act that specifies that when a library (or anybody else, for that matter) buys a copy of a book, it is ours to do with as we see fit. We can lend it to whomever we want, as many times as we want, and when we decide we are through with it, we can dispose of it in any way we want, including selling it, giving it away to the local Friends group, or throwing it in the dumpster. There’s nothing any publisher or vendor can do about it, unless we violate some provision of the Copyright Act.

Not so for ebooks. As of now, anyway, the first sale doctrine does not apply to digital content. So, libraries don’t really purchase ebooks: Libraries license them from publishers or vendors such as Amazon and OverDrive. And it is the terms of those licenses — not the copyright law, or anything else — that determine exactly what libraries can and cannot do with ebooks. Licenses can and do specify to whom the title can be lent. For OverDrive customers, that means only registered patrons who live within the library’s geographic service area. Licenses can also specify how many times an item can be lent — and for HarperCollins customers, as we now know, that limit is 26. Licenses specify the vendor used to download ebooks and the e-readers on which they can be read — as we learned when Penguin recently yanked all of its “Get for a Kindle” links from its content on OverDrive. (The link was later restored for some titles.)

And licenses can specify exactly what happens to ebooks libraries spent good money on when deciding to switch vendors or stop ebook service altogether — as the Kansas State Library discovered when it tried to move its content from OverDrive to 3M. OverDrive had inadvertently used the word “purchase” in its contract with Kansas State, so it agreed to allow the Kansas State Library to transfer its books to 3M on a one-time basis. However, the state librarian was forced to get separate approval for each title from the 193 publishers involved. As of this writing, she had only managed to get approval to move half of her ebook titles and 40% of her downloadable audio books. The remaining titles that Kansas State thought it had bought and paid for will just disappear when the OverDrive contract runs out at the end of this year. OverDrive has since re-written all of its contracts to indicate that all its content is licensed — not purchased — and that the library only has access to it as long as it subscribes to the OverDrive platform.

Should a library want to move to another provider or discontinue its ebook subscription, all of the books it has bought — er, “licensed” — simply vanish into thin air. Not exactly an attractive business model for libraries. But as long as the first-sale doctrine does not apply to digital works, it is all there is. And if we want to give our patrons access to ebooks, we are forced to negotiate the terms and conditions with the publishers and ebook vendors who supply them — many of whom have little incentive to accommodate us. Even in the event libraries can negotiate deals with the publishing industry that would allow us to play a significant role in the ebook market, there remain some very real questions about what that role might be.

Traditionally, libraries have provided value for readers in two important ways. Libraries collected books in a wide variety of subject areas and held on to them long after they’ve gone out of print. As a result, even the most modest libraries generally have bigger and better collection of print books than you can find in most bookstores and, through the wonders of interlibrary loan, we could even offer access to millions of titles available in other libraries around the world. So if you were a reader looking for books outside the limited selection of current titles at your local bookstore, your best bet — until now — has been to head to the library.

Secondly, and just as importantly, libraries reduced the cost of reading and information by purchasing copies of books and sharing them among many readers. We can’t really say libraries are free — we all pay for them in our taxes and/or tuition fees. But they certainly are cheap. The average per-capita cost of public libraries in 2009 was $39.01, significantly less than the purchase price of two trade hardcovers. So, if you are any kind of a reader — and you don’t mind bringing the books back after a few weeks —the library has always been a really great bargain. Plus, if you borrowed your books instead of buying them, you didn’t have to worry about the titles you’d finished piling up in big dusty stacks around the house or finding more room on your bookshelves — you just returned them to the library when done with them and brought home another crop.

But ebooks seriously undermine the value of libraries in each of these functions. First, there’s the nonownership problem which only lets libraries provide patrons access to some portion of the vendor’s collection as long as annual license and maintenance fees continue to be paid. If a library should falter in paying, its whole ebook “collection” simply vanishes — as if it had never existed. More importantly, no matter how many titles a library offers access to, libraries will never be the “big kahuna” of the ebook world, as had been the case for print. That role has been supplanted by Google, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and others which now offer access to millions of titles from their sites — all of which can be accessed at the touch of a button. In fact, with more than 15 million titles scanned, Google Books already outranks most of the world’s print collections. And, if it can accomplish its avowed goal of scanning all of the estimated 129,864,880 print books that now exist on Earth, it will truly make it Earth’s Largest Library by a very wide margin. Not only that, you’ll be able to search through the full text of all 130 million titles to find what you want, and, when you do, no filling out ILL forms or waiting around weeks to get it. Just push the button and it will appear on your device immediately. Except for building a handy e-reading device and associated apps, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and the others lag far behind Google, but each provides far and away more ebook titles than are available on any library website. And since ebooks need never go out of print, nor are there any significant carrying costs for electronic inventory, we can only expect these “retail” collections to continue to grow in the future.

So patrons will no longer need to turn to libraries to find titles that are a little more esoteric or were published long ago. If they want ebooks, Google and the principal retailers can already offer access to a much richer selection of titles, and much more easily and conveniently than libraries have ever been able to offer in print. Of course, there are some legal difficulties — ahem — but most of these companies can afford to litigate, if not to legislate.

And, there’s more. A large percentage of the ebooks available from Google and other retailers are available for free — just like the library — but better because you don’t have to go down and pick them up and you never have to bring them back. Google is offering about 3 million free books in the public domain as of this writing, and that number would likely increase substantially if and when the litigation is resolved. Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble claim to offer more than 1 million free titles each, more than either of them offers for sale, and far more free titles than you’d find in the average library collection. A real treasure-trove — as long as you don’t mind if the books weren’t written very recently. Moreover, many of the million or so titles the retailers do offer for sale are priced substantially below the cost of their print versions. As of this writing, the ebook editions of the majority of the current best-sellers on Amazon were priced 20–25% below Amazon’s already steeply discounted price for the print editions, which equates to a discount of more than 50% off the publishers suggested retail prices for print. And that’s just for the best-sellers, the highest priced and most popular titles. Ebook versions of midlist and backlist titles are generally much less expensive, often no more than a few dollars. In fact, a recent study by the Book Industry Study Group found that of the 950,000 titles Amazon offered for the Kindle, 800,000 of them were available for $9.99 or less. The overall average price for a trade ebook was $7.72 in 2010 — down from $8.09 in 2009 (Global Ebook Market 2011 []).

I’d like to point out that $7.72 is less than the price of a six-pack of decent beer or a couple of lattes at Starbucks. When prices drop to this level, one begins to wonder just how much we really need libraries to subsidize prices and make reading even cheaper. I strongly suspect that if books were as broadly and cheaply available back in the late 1800s and early 1900s as ebooks are now, the public library movement would have had a very difficult time getting off the ground. Andrew Carnegie might have found a better way to spend his money.

However, statistics still show that ebooks that do make it into libraries seem to circulate pretty heavily, indicating that we are still providing a service our patrons value, even with these low price points and the millions of books available for nothing. Nonetheless, I think it becomes difficult to justify spending public tax monies to further reduce the cost of a service that is already cheap and broadly available. We may be reaching that point.

Finally, if there is still room for a lending model at an average retail price of $7.72, are publicly funded libraries the best organizations to provide it? Clearly, libraries are no longer the only game in town when it comes to providing library services. Amazon, Google, and Barnes & Noble already give away way more free ebooks than there are in most library print collections. If it really can be proved that lending books does increase sales, as the ALA and starry-eyed library ebook advocates like to claim, then major suppliers such as Amazon, B&N, Google, and others may make more attractive “lending partners” in the future for publishers and authors than libraries. After all, since these suppliers have the biggest collections, and that’s where most of us go to buy our ebooks now, it would only make sense that we’d want to go to the same place to borrow them.

The ebook retailers already have sales contracts with all the major publishers and could build lending agreements into them, assuming the retailers can convince the publishers to go along. Both retailers and publishers are focused on increasing revenues and profits, which gives them a common ground to work out lending agreements that will serve their interests. As we know, Amazon already jumped into this arena when it opened its Lending Library program in November 2011. Amazon is already offering more than 75,000 titles under the program — far more than most any library — and you can borrow one title a month for free, without the holds, “expiring titles,” and geographic restrictions that plague library ebook lending. Of course, when I say “free,” I mean no charge beyond the annual $79 Amazon prime subscription.

At the moment, many publishers and the Author’s Guild are not happy about the program, but if these groups and Amazon can get their differences worked out, it could turn Amazon into a pretty formidable competitor in the library “market” — especially when you add in a million-plus titles you can download for free at any time. If Amazon makes a success of this lending effort, its competitors and others will jump in as well (perhaps a Netflix for books). Given the pressure on library financial resources and a limited negotiating leverage, public library ebook lending is unlikely to fare very well by comparison.

In short, despite a current fascination with them, the long-term prospects for ebooks in libraries don’t look good. The publishers and most authors really don’t want to see libraries in the market and their terms and conditions are becoming increasingly restrictive. The lack of a first sale doctrine and the burden of licensing terms libraries are forced to accept undercut their ability to use the resources being paid for as publishers and vendors dictate everything, from whom libraries may lend to, how many times items can be circulated, to what titles may be licensed. And for this, libraries may have to pay nearly twice as much as what would normally be paid for a print version of the same item. This is hardly an attractive bargain for anyone except the vendors and publishers, assuming they will still sell to libraries. Meanwhile, Google Books, Amazon, and the other major retailers have undercut the library’s traditional roles by assembling vast collections of ebooks both in and out of print and in every subject area, so that people who once went to libraries now turn first to Google, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple when they need an ebook.

The fact is that well over half the ebooks currently available can be read at no cost whatsoever and most of the rest are available at prices so low as to unlikely challenge any but the most destitute among us. And this raises some very real questions about the continued value of the “free” lending library in the age of the ebook.

The Electric Library

What would it look like — a library that existed only on the internet without any kind of physical presence at all? How might it work? Or is “might” the right word? Maybe we should be asking what will work and how soon. A library that exists entirely on the web, without shelves or printed books to put on them, or comfortable chairs, or story time rooms, or even rows of public access PCs, or a building to put all of it into. This library would have no physical presence whatsoever. It would come to life at the flick of switch, provide its services to us wherever we happened to be, and vanish just as quickly when we no longer needed it.

To get an idea of what this virtual library might look like, and the kinds of services it might provide, we’ve looked back over the past 50 years (yes, it really has been that long) — at all of the roles libraries have played, or tried to play, or dreamed of playing in the digital transformation of our society’s infotainment infrastructure. We’ve looked at our early aspirations to catalog the web and what became of them. We’ve documented our largely ineffectual experiments with Library 2.0 and virtual reference. And we’ve seen what happened to once-successful database research services and examined the evidence suggesting that even our heavily used public access computer programs may suffer a similar fate. Finally, we’ve looked at the many issues with ebooks and why they are likely to prevent libraries from ever playing a major role in that market.

In each case, we have seen that some entity has come along — or is coming along — that can do a better job than libraries can in providing library services online. It has become abundantly clear that it really is not necessary for us to imagine what an electric library would look like at all — because it has already been built. It’s here right now, and millions of people are using it every day. The only problem is, libraries and librarians have little or nothing to do with it.

Books are provided by Amazon, Google, Barnes & Noble, and Apple — all of whom boast much larger collections than can be found in almost any library, and many of which you can have for free just as if you borrowed them from our libraries, except you don’t need to worry about bringing them back. Those books that do cost are generally available at affordable prices that are unlikely to set back the typical reader more than the cost of a six-pack — and I note that we haven’t yet seen the need to develop public institutions to make that available for free. Cataloging is provided by Google, Amazon, and the other information providers, with little or no regard for the MARC record, AACR2, RDA, the Library of Congress or the Dewey classification systems, and other arcana which have governed the practice of library bibliographic control for years. In fact, most people seem to prefer the richly detailed catalog entries of the online commercial databases to the skeletal data found in the typical library catalog. And that reference to most people even includes many librarians. Our readers advisory services have been taken over by the likes of Goodreads, LibraryThing, Amazon, and dozens of similar “communities” that let readers share their books and their likes and dislikes with their friends online — all for free.

Library reference collections and reference services have also migrated online. Today, when you have a question, you don’t ask a librarian, you type a few words into the Google search box and get back thousands of results, all within a few nanoseconds. Most people find the information they get back good enough to answer most of their questions. In cases where it is not sufficient, they can always consult an expert. But today, that expert is more likely to be a doctor, lawyer, contractor, journalist, tax accountant, psychiatrist, or somebody else with special subject knowledge rather than a librarian. Finally, most of us are already accessing this vast electronic library via our personal computers, e-readers, tablets, and smartphones. For those few who can’t afford it, there is still the library public access PC, but its days are clearly numbered. As internet access becomes more ubiquitous, people will no more think of coming to the library to log on to the web than they would come to the library to make a phone call or watch television.

So where does all of this leave the real libraries — with real buildings, real collections of paper books, real librarians and staff, and the millions of real people who use them? It is we, the librarians, who came up with the whole idea of equitable access to information, who knew it was important to preserve the written record, to find ways of identifying it and making it accessible. It is we who invented reference services and story times and became the “go to” people when patrons needed accurate information or a recommendation for a good book.

Well, although our aspirations at times have clearly exceeded our abilities, we have played a very important role in the digital revolution that has transformed the information and publishing industry during the past several decades. Our database search services introduced thousands upon thousands of patrons to the wonders of online searching. Collectively, we’ve taught millions of people about the internet, what they could do with it, and what to watch out for. And our public computers have allowed millions of people to access the web who otherwise would never have been able to afford it. And, of course, Google Books would be nothing like itself, if not for the libraries that preserved and cataloged the millions of paper books Google is now busy scanning.

These are all major accomplishments, and we librarians have every right to be proud of them. But the world is moving on. Each of the services we’ve provided in the digital arena has been — or is being — superseded by new and better technologies or by other organizations better suited to deliver services electronically. And when Google has finished its scanning project, it will have no more use for us or our collections either.

So after more than 50 years in the digital market, libraries have come right back to where they started. Our dream of an electronic library has been built, but others own and manage it. We are left with the tangible property we began with, our physical books, the thousands of buildings that house them, and the millions of people still coming through our doors to use them. In reality, those are not inconsiderable assets — especially in a world where it may become increasingly uneconomical to have physical bookstores or places where people can get together to listen to stories or discuss books and ideas. Figuring out how to exploit those assets in this new environment will not be easy. Perhaps we should turn our attention away from the electric library that others have built and focus on the real books and buildings that made us what we were to begin with. Perhaps that will continue to define us into the future.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps we have new roles to play in the digital world or old roles to play but in a new way. Let’s think about that. For my thoughts, keep reading Searcher magazine. I’ll be back.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of LSSI .

Steve Coffman ( is Vice President, Library Support Services, LSSI — Library Systems and Services in Germantown, MD.
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