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.

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