Saturday, March 24, 2012

Is the Web really dead?

Which serves users better—the Web or apps? This controversy emerged after a famous 2010 article in Wired magazine proclaimed that the Web is Dead. The authors Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff wrote that apps would replace websites as the major source of information and entertainment for users. Librarians are naturally worried about technological innovations that potentially have impact on the resources that library users request. Pew Research decided to survey experts in the field of Internet technology to see what they said about future directions. The report, released this week, sheds light on what librarians and others can expect in the future. It is well worth your time to read the whole report on the Pew Research website, but here are a few highlights.

The fear of many experts is that the Web will be broken into many fragments, each one an app designed to lead users to a particular site. The value of apps is that they are easily browsed on mobile devices such as phones and tablets. As more and more users turn to these small-scale entries to the online world, their use of apps will increase (Cisco predicts that by 2016 there will be 16 billion mobile devices in use). But one of the major values of the Internet has been the serendipity that leads browsers to jump from one site to another to investigate sidelines and ideas generated. Will these users in the future be more likely to stay in the narrow realm of the app, whether it is a magazine, newspaper, or retailer?

The survey of experts conducted by Pew Research and Elon University collected a lot of information about what is expected in the future. To the vital question of whether apps would replace the Web, 59% of the experts agreed that by 2020 the Web would still be a vital and growing resource for people, although many individuals would use apps for specific purposes. Only 35% of respondents believe that apps will largely replace the Web by 2020.

The reason for optimism about the development of the Web seems to have grown out of the conviction that people enjoy the open environment of websites that allow them to explore much more of the online world than apps do. Perhaps this quote from the report sums it up most concisely:

“The gated bubble worlds formed by app markets, Facebook, and other private spaces will bloom and fade, while people will keep gathering in the open spaces.” – Jerry Michalski, founder of Relationship Economy Expedition and consultant at the Institute for the Future

What does this mean for librarians who serve young people? Well we are certainly not going to stop collecting apps and recommending them to patrons. But we should remember their limitations and help youngsters to learn how to handle a larger Web experience. Some parents and other adults prefer to have their children limited to apps that contain carefully controlled content, but if we want young people to grow intellectually, we also need to help them explore a larger world. And we need to help parents accept the fact that we cannot control and limit all content that children view. Our role is to guide and explain and to gradually help children move into the larger world, not to keep them locked into the safety of any limited bubble world.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Ebooks belong in libraries

News about the difficulty of providing ebooks in libraries is finally spreading to the general public. Librarians have been worrying and debating for months, even years, about the restrictions placed on ebooks in libraries, but few people outside the profession realize what is happening. Many people believe—whether they approve or not—that libraries are providing ebooks easily to all of their users. An article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle recounts some of the difficulties that librarians face

As the library journals have pointed out, and most librarians know, publishers are pulling back on their offerings of ebooks in libraries. Many of the major publishers do not allow new books to be sold to libraries; some have stopped supplying any titles at all. All of us who are librarians should speak up for the people who want to borrow ebooks from the library. Encourage our professional organizations, especially ALA to continue to press the publishers for changes. Encourage our congressional representatives to support the right of readers to find books in school and public libraries in many different formats.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Is it time to retreat?

Libraries have been increasing their purchases of ebooks for several years now, and those of us--including me--who think this is a good advance have been cheering, but dissenting voices are now being raised. The struggle between publishers, libraries, and ebook users has been heating up recently. Several publisher are refusing to sell to libraries. Harper Collins has instituted a strick limit of 26 circulations per book for its ebooks, and has seized the opportunity to start a lending program of its own for ebooks. The meeting of ALA leaders with book publishers does not appear to have accomplished much, although it's always good to have an ongoing conversation. Now along comes a thoughtful commentary by Bobbi Newman who writes the Librarian by Day blog. She suggests that libraries stop buying ebooks for a while until the market has worked out the way in which these purchases will work. As she suggests, and several other librarians have agreed, we always have other needs to fill, other resources or programs we could spend money on rather than ebooks. Why not concentrate on meeting those needs until the market quiets down? I agree with many of her ideas. It is irritating to try to work out the best way to spend library budgets, ebooks are difficult to administer and require lots of staff time helping patrons, and the increasing prices of ebooks are a burden for libraries. Still, in the long run, I think we have to stick with our purpose of pushing forward into an increasingly digital reading environment. It's frustrating and some patrons complain about our spending our money that way, while others complain about not buying enough. We have a long way to go in establishing relatively simple ebook circulation. But still...the future direction seems clear and how long will we have to wait for perfection? A wise colleague once told me when I was thinking about postponing the purchase of computers "until something better comes along" that a waiting attitude won't work in our world. "You have to step on the escalator" he said. "Sure there will be better products in 6 months or a year, but you will lose those months in waiting." It's the same with ebooks. If we wait for the publishing and distribution problems to be worked out, we may have pushed our libraries into oblivion. Our patrons will borrow from or from some other source; young people will share the ebooks they buy without bothering with libraries; our budgets will probably fall even further behind. Libraries are already seen by many people as somewhat old-fashioned and unnecessary. If we stop purchasing ebooks, we will be viewed as even more irrelevant. We know there is a strong, appreciative audience for ebooks out there; young people are more and more accustomed to getting materials online. We need to remain players in the ebook field; we need to support our professional organizations in their attempts to influence publishers and distributors. It's a tough fight, but this is no time to give up the battle.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

How much more can we pay?

The news that Random House publishers are doubling and tripling the price of their ebooks came as a shock to most librarians. Just as children's and YA librarians are developing their ebook collections to meet the requests of patrons, they suddenly become luxury itens. As the LJ/SLJ blog "Digital Shift" reports, children's books that used to be priced at about $20 will increase to $35-$85 per title. Librarians who have worked for months to persuade their administrators that even children's collections should include ebooks, will find their budgets severely strained. At the very least the number of copies of popular books will have to be reduced. And there are tricky questions to answer about whether a dozen paper copies of a new series title is better than a handful of digital copies. Which do teens and tweens really want?

Paper publishers are fighting for their lives now and not inclined to listen to the budgetary woes of librarians, but I hope they can be persuaded that we are all in this together. If young people don't grow up with easy access to books, they are unlikely to become lifelong readers. What will publishers do if their market for both digital and paper books shrinks away?

But talking to publishers is difficult for the average librarian. What we need to do right now it talk to our patrons. We need to open a dialog with kids and their parents to find out what they really want. How would they decide about which format to provide? The one thing a crisis may help with is establishing communication. Now's the time to rev up the Facebook page and liven up the blog so we can get plenty of input from the people who really matter--the children and teens we are hoping to provide with reading experiences.