On Ebooks & Getting Skunked

At the Computers in Libraries conference last week, there was lots of discussion about ebooks. Angry discussion. Okay some of the anger was in fun, but libraries are in a tough spot when it comes to ebooks.

Thursday’s A202 session, “Ebook Trends: Info Pro Perspectives,” started with Andy Woodworth quoting Louis C.K.: “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy.” Click through and watch Louis (He’s on Conan, so there’s no swears. From 1:55 to 6:08 or so is his bit on this). His take, and Andy’s, seems pretty right-on. Twenty years ago, we couldn’t have imaged the conveniences of today’s information technologies. But we get seriously upset today when it doesn’t operate at maximum convenience.

I don’t think our complaints about ebooks are about inconvenience. Libraries are about giving everyone equal access to content. “Sharing wins,” says Andy. “Sharing will always win.” Sharing isn’t this optional thing you might or might not do in your lifetime. Boy, another month without sharing anything with anyone. Nope. “The inclination to share stories, thoughts, ideas, and concepts is more philosophically compelling than the rules around them.” Yep.

So if sharing wins, why are libraries still getting skunked? I think it’s because we forget that this system causes our patrons more pain than it causes us. We’d like to offer The Hunger Games in ebook format and not just as a downloadable audio book, but it’s patrons who can’t get the ebook.

And patrons don’t know why they can’t check out the ebooks they want to read. They don’t know that this ebook isn’t available from this publisher at all, or that that ebook just tripled in price from that publisher. My question isn’t if ebooks are worth getting upset about. It’s if libraries are the right ones to be upset. Shouldn’t it be our patrons?

After all, our frustration doesn’t get us a better seat at the bargaining table with the publishers and Overdrive. (Do we even have a seat there?) When Random House “experiments” with 300% price increases on ebooks, libraries have to buy fewer copies or buy from other publishers.

Issues like that are invisible to patrons, who likely don’t know the publisher of the book they want to read at all. They just want to read. We need to make these issues visible, because it’s patrons who are really getting skunked here. When they see enough examples of publishers gaming library budgets and cutting off access to ebooks, they’ll have the “Aha” moment we already have.

They’ll hit bingo. They’ll start making this argument about access to ebooks for us, and there are a lot more patrons out there than librarians. We’re talking about these issues already, but we need to talk about it where our patrons can hear. At the reference desk, sure, but in the local newspapers, local radio, our websites. I don’t enjoy getting skunked, but it’s a lot easier to take if it gets patrons closer to that bingo moment. Let’s make sure it does.


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