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Feature Article: E-Books, E-Readers & Libraries
Summer 2010

Across the Board | Summer 2010| Topic: E-Books, E-Readers & Libraries
The Mid-Hudson Library System's Quarterly Newsletter for Public Library Trustees


"Well, what is a book, really? Is it its body, or its soul?" - Anna Quindlen

"The best defense against the future is to think about it, to imagine different scenarios, and try to avoid being taken by surprise." - Stuart Candy, Futurist

"E-book Sales Surpass Hardcovers at Amazon" - this was the big headline flying around librarian blogs, Facebook pages and email lists around the country in July 2010. Is this it? Is this the death knell for the printed book? For reading as we know it? For libraries?

The buzz surrounding e-books and e-readers has been getting louder and louder, building since the 2007 release of Amazon's e-reader device the Kindle. In 2010 the buzz seems to be reaching frenzy status as librarians scramble to understand the many options and implications surrounding the e-book/e-reader issue and trustees field questions from the public about what happens next.

Should we be buying e-books? Should we be lending Kindles? Are we even allowed to lend e-readers? How much will it cost? How many of my patrons want this? Which vendor should I use? My staff can't keep up! - These are some of the questions, comments and fears we are hearing from libraries around the System.

So let's all take a breath, sit back and take stock. Click on "read more" to expand each of the three areas below.

1. E-books are here to stay. [read more]

2. No one has won the e-reader war…yet. [Read more]

3. The Times…They Are a'Changin'. What's a trustee to do? [read more]


1. E-books are here to stay. Amazon's recent announcement that e-book sales have topped hardcover book sales was followed up with a prediction from the company that by the end of 2011 e-book sales would also top paperback sales. People love this technology. It is not going away. The American Publishing Association has announced that the sales of e-books have increased from 3 percent of the market a year ago, to 8.5 percent. In 2007, 3 of the top 10 best selling books in Japan were not only e-books but e-books written on mobile phones. "As young people become used to reading virtually everything online that is going to propel a change in terms of readership of e-books rather than readership of physical books," said Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public Library in the October 2009 New York Times article Libraries and Readers Wade Into Digital Lending. "It's time to start prepping on the ways our patrons will soon be expecting to interact with content," wrote Josh Hadro in an article about e-readers in the February 2010 issue of Library Journal.

Futurists, scholars and business executives examining this issue predict that e-books will not replace, but complement the printed book - just as newspapers, recorded sound and movies have done in the past. In a recent poll, the popular technology news site Mashable asked readers, "Which do you prefer: e-books or print books?" (Keep in mind this is a site that techies read, people that are highly likely to be early adopters of new technology):

In a July 2010 article in Publishers Weekly about the digital "revolution" in children's publishing none of the publishers interviewed expressed worry that digital products would replace traditional print, "Children are still going to have a bookshelf," said Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children's Books, "They'll have shelves with many other things too." Publishers are noticing that e-books replace games more than the printed book for children. To stay on top of the evolution of the book in the wired world check out the Institute for the Future of the Book [] a think tank out of the University of Southern California funded by the MacArthur Foundation.

While they are here to stay, the market has not quite stabilized to reveal a clear front runner in the publishing and distribution industries. The issue of copyright is creating interesting questions for authors, publishers and distributors to answer as they want to ensure everyone is still making money. Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a big hurdle to creating a standard model for libraries to buy into. For example, recently a publisher made an exclusive deal with Amazon for their e-book distribution, this means only people who own a Kindle can read those e-books. We checked with the vendor who provides our downloadable audio content, who could also provide our ebook content, who said that only books from one publisher are currently readable on Kindles. This type of proprietary arrangement does not speak to the public library model.

MHLS is watching the e-book trend very closely. System-wide purchasing of e-books is a current topic of discussion at MHLS member library advisory committees. We have worked to pave the way for member libraries to decide when the time is right: Earlier this year, MHLS coordinated the launch of downloadable audiobooks through the vendor Overdrive for all libraries in the System. In designing the interface for downloads we consciously named the site the "MHLS Digital Download Center" to leave the door open to add e-books in the future.

It is often challenging for libraries o know when the time is right to jump on the bandwagon of new technologies. With limited resources and a public to serve that encompasses the full spectrum of income levels and interest in new technology it means a careful balance of resource allocation. Just as with DVDs and downloadable audiobooks we will need to continue to keep an eye out for the tipping point in our communities.

Gartner, an information technology research and advisory firm headquartered in Connecticut, has coined the phrase "hype cycle" to help businesses understand the timing implications for jumping into new technology:
The "slope of enlightenment" and "plateau of productivity" are the most reasonable spots for public libraries to adopt new formats and technologies.

"If there are too many unanswered questions around the commercial viability of an emerging technology, it may be better to wait until others have been able to deliver tangible value." []

The 2009-2010 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study findings show that that 66% of public libraries in the United States currently offer ebooks, 71% of New York Libraries.

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2. No one has won the e-reader war…yet. There is certainly no shortage of e-reader device options: from the single purpose devices such as Amazon's Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook to the iconic tablet PC the Apple iPad and multi-tasking powerhouse smart phones like the iPhone, Blackberry and Droid. The array of devices available is interacting with content delivery in a way similar to the early days of online music downloads. Some files only work with certain devices, and if Napster and Droid users have taught us anything it is that people do not like that.

The success of e-books is tied to the future e-readers. Consumers want convergence - one device that "does it all" - makes phone calls, checks email, surfs the web, recommends a restaurant, programs the DVR… along with all the functionality of an e-reader. As technology evolves we get closer and closer to this model, only our disposable income level keeps us from obtaining the "perfect device."

In a way we are in the midst of an ever evolving "digital divide," the haves and have-nots - those that have access to technology and those that do not, those that have access to high-speed connectivity and those that do not. The role of the public library has shifted greatly with the advent of the Internet and this will be another chapter in that book - not everyone has the same level of access to technology. Look at your community, who can afford the $500 iPad? Who can afford the $139 Kindle? Is it the majority of your users? The library plays the role of equalizer in the modern environment.

In a 2009 study pilot testing e-readers as a library service conducted at John Jay College, part of the City University of New York System, the researchers concluded, "not right now." They found that the e-reader market is developing so fast that it is almost impossible for a library to keep up. "The e-readers were ultimately considered to be a potential added expense rather than a substitute for regular books." In a way, this is good news, since a recent posting on the Library Law Blog indicated that it is currently illegal for libraries to lend devices such as the Kindle and iPad to patrons.

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3. The Times…They Are a'Changin'. What's a trustee to do? In his 2009 book, The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future , Robert Darnton of Harvard University notes that libraries are the one place in the world where books and technology meet.

Whether or not Google scans every book and puts it online for free or James Patterson decides never to publish in print ever again, the ability for many people to access e-books and other content that is solely available online depends on the viability of their public library.

The trustee role to ensure financial stability for the library remains the same. The trustee role to be an advocate for the library in the community-at-large remains the same. As long as trustees listen to their community, consult with the experts on hand in their libraries and at the System and continue to pursue sustainable funding from the community just about everything else will work itself out. While many things are changing around us, some things remain the same - put your community first, ensure the library is funded at a level that meets community needs and be an advocate for the library. Libraries will continue to flourish.

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Did you know? "In five years, more users will connect to the internet via a mobile device than a desktop PC." Speaker from Google at the 2010 American Library Association Conference. While this may or may not be the case Laurie Shedrick, MHLS Automated Systems Manager, has already introduced a mobile version of the online catalog earlier this year for all member libraries to share with their patrons:


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