I’ve been watching the rise of the ebook with interest over the last few years. When you’ve made a work available to the various ereader formats, you can’t help but get sucked into the ereading universe. I could easily see the appeal of carrying many books around on one small device and, having read a few books on my computer, I could see why an e-ink screen would make for a more pleasurable experience (not to mention the ability to comfortably read in bed or in front of the fire).
This was the Christmas when I finally succumbed to the fascination and acquired an ereader. As I’ve already explained in this blog, I’m not a big buyer of fiction books for myself – I rely heavily on the public libraries for my reading habit. One of the big advantages of an ereader was going to be the huge amount of free reading material that’s available online, through Project Gutenberg and services like Feedbooks and Smashwords. I was also excited by the possibility of renting more up-to-date ebooks from the two public library systems to which I belong.
Well, I was excited until I started examining their stock. One of the libraries uses Overdrive, which is run co-operatively as part of a big investment in Ontario libraries. The other uses NetLibrary. Here’s what they offer, in terms of content:
|Audio fiction||Audio non-fiction||Ebook fiction||Ebook non-fiction||Total|
I don’t know how many books the physical libraries hold, but according to a 1990s paper by Moya K. Mason, the median number in Ontario libraries is around 35,000 books. So there’s a long way to go before the number of ebooks rivals the number of physical items in our libraries.
UPDATE: I’ve done a bit more digging and have discovered that the smaller of my two local libraries (the Overdrive library) holds 23,000 items, while the bigger library (the one that uses NetLibrary) holds 80,000. So it’s quite a significant difference in percentage terms, with the equivalent of 27% of the stock of the small library available in ebook form, but only 6% of the larger one.
Now, if I did a lot of driving, then the audio books would be great. But I don’t, and it’s quicker to read than it is to hear a book. The number of items of interest to me in these collections is therefore reduced even further (but obviously that will be different for many other people, that I’m happy to accept). It’s early days, still, and I hope that these numbers will improve over the coming months and years. I’ve provided them here as a benchmark for future comparisons.
I’d like to make a few observations on the usability of these services. Of the two, I found Overdrive more intuitive to navigate. As you can see from the table, I couldn’t easily separate non-fiction from fiction titles in NetLibrary. This is fairly fundamental – in most public libraries there’s a clear physical division between the two. But in NetLibrary I wasn’t able to simply divide up the stock in this way to get an estimate of the number of fiction and non-fiction titles. Unless you know what you’re looking for, NetLibrary isn’t easy to navigate, generally. Overdrive was definitely superior in this respect, with books browsable by popularity, as well as by title, author and category.
In Overdrive, I quickly found three books that I’ve been wanting to read. None of them were instantly available and there is a limit to the number of books that I can ask to reserve (three). In each case, there are between 12 and 23 people ahead of me in line. I’ve no idea what that means, in practical terms. There is a standard loan period of two weeks (this is the usual loan period for the equivalent real-world library, too), which can be altered to three weeks in the Overdrive system. But I don’t know if that means I’ll have to wait six to 12 months for the books I’d like, or if the system has more than one licence for each of those books, which would mean that they should become available sooner. Time will tell (and these physical restrictions seem bizarre, frankly, when we’re talking about a few kilobytes of data, not an actual book). At least there were some books that I knew I’d want to read. I didn’t find any in the NetLibrary collection (it doesn’t have copies of Stieg Larsson’s books?!), even when searching for the three books I’d ordered from Overdrive.
By means of experiment, I’ve also placed a hold on one of the ebooks I’ve ordered in printed book form from the library. It’ll be interesting to see whether it’s the ebook or the dead-tree version that arrives first.
I don’t want to see our public libraries closing, and I think that if they get their act together in relation to ebooks, then they’ll become relevant to a whole section of society that simply sees libraries as irrelevant to their current way of life. In a world where many ereaders allow users to buy the book they want instantly from the Internet, where is the appeal of waiting for a long, artificially-created line of people to download a digital file before you can (apart from the financial one)? And if the file isn’t even there in the first place, then they won’t take the time to look for one, next time. I know it’s early days, but this is key to the future success of libraries. It’s a chance they can’t afford to miss.
Good post. Just a few comments–
Libraries, assuming they have the money, can buy more “copies” of ebooks from Overdrive/NetLibrary just as they would a p-book for bestsellers. What libraries cannot do however, is decide which service carries what title. Both Overdrive and NetLibrary try to get exclusives with the publishers which means only they can provide that title. Most libraries cannot afford both Overdrive and NetLibrary. The one copy/one reader is the publisher’s call not the libraries. And don’t get me started on DRM (digital rights management). There is no right of “first sale”, meaning the library, legally, cannot lend digital books (not in public domain)on ereaders. Kindle doesn’t play with Overdrive or NetLibrary or libraries at all. Amazon and publishers would very much like libraries to become irrelevant as they would profit from library closures.
Libraries could buy fewer print titles and put that money in digital. If the adminstration is paying attention to trends or listening to readers like yourself, that is. Unfortunately, libraries aren’t moving fast enough and don’t have enough influence in high places to budget differently nor change the legislation to make sure libraries maintain the right of first sale.
Libraries look a little like newspapers–trying so hard to stay in business but not succeeeding very well, at least on the digital front. Ironically, libraries are busier than ever.
A. J. Braithwaite said:
Hi Susan – thanks for taking the time to comment. I didn’t realise that Overdrive and NetLibrary try to negotiate exclusive deals with publishers. That would explain the difference between the books that are available from the two services. I am lucky to have access to both, from my two different libraries, I see. I did try to download an audio book for my son yesterday, from NetLibrary and soon ran into DRM issues with that (although at least with NetLibrary there wasn’t a waiting list, as there was with the Overdrive books).
I know that there are a lot of people thinking about this issue on the library side, but there doesn’t seem to be a simple solution to it: the vested interests in the publishing industry have all the money and therefore all the power. While libraries have less and less money and now a new format of books to buy which will spread the available cash even more thinly, if they choose to do so. Perhaps this current hybrid world of print and ebooks is the worst possible scenario, financially-speaking, with the all-digital libraries of the future being more fiscally viable. It’s the management of the transition to that future that is the problem and that’s the point we’re at now.
You hit the nail exactly. Management and leadership in navigating the future is sorely needed. It is hard to maintain good collections for both print and digital when money is so tight. Libraries are changing beyond the debate on e- vs p books.
The fundamental changes needed to the internal structure of the library are huge, changing not only how things are done, but who gets the budget and staff to make it happen. Libraries, like other institutions, generally do not make big changes overnight yet we live in a world that expects instant and constant change.
It feels sometimes like the perfect storm. Libraries can weather the storm if there are new ways of thinking about libraries’ role. We do live (and work) in interesting times.
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