Why Library and eBooks Issues Matter

Lazy day reading with the new KindleIt is no secret that a lot of my time the couple of last years has been spent reading, writing, talking, and thinking about eBooks. To the point where I’m a little sick of the whole mess. Really. Sometimes I want to never think or talk about eBooks and libraries again. I’m sure some of you feel the same way. I know there are people out there who think it is a waste of time for librarians to be worried about the ebook issues, or rather content in general. They think that libraries are about community and experience and creation and content doesn’t matter or at least won’t matter in our future. These are people I like, respect and admire so sometimes I have to wonder if they might be right. But I have decided that this is similar to thinking that only teen services matter if you’re a teen librarian or children’s services if you’re a children’s librarian. It is easy to think what you do is the most important thing, that’s human nature. So I get it. Plus like I said I’m sick of eBooks too. It seems like once a month or every other month I swear to never write about them again. Really there are plenty of other smart, capable people addressing this issue and I have plenty of other interests (digital literacy, the digital divide, transliteracy, learning, you get the idea) to keep me busy.

Then something happens to remind me why it matters. Why we have to care about library eBook issues.

This weekend at a social gathering a woman who works as a nurse in a hospital approached me to ask me about eReaders. (People know I’m a librarian so I get approached like this pretty frequently.) This nurse has  an elderly patient who is not going to be leaving the hospital any time soon. He likes to read. Buying books is not an option so he uses the library. Someone goes to the public library and picks out books for him regularly. The problem is he is not really happy with the choices they are making for him. There was some discussion about getting him a computer but he’s never used one before so they are now discussing eReaders.

Makes sense right? They know that libraries have eBooks. If he buys an eReader he should be able to check them out. See that? That there – SHOULD be able to check them out. He SHOULD. With just an eReader without a computer he SHOULD be able to get eBooks from the library. The technology is there, the Kindle/OverDrive option proves that it can work without a computer. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t because publishers don’t want it to. Whether it is because of fear or greed or any other reason, technology fails to reach the maximum of its potential because publishers are holding it back.  They are denying service to this man, to this portion of the population. It would be one thing if it just wasn’t possible but it IS possible. It SHOULD work. There is no good reason it does not work.

Unfortunately I had to tell her that an ereader probably won’t work. That most library eBooks require that the book be downloaded to a computer and transferred to the ereader. I watched her face fall, she had been so sure this was the answer. As I thought about her disappointment and struggled to explain in the simplest terms possible WHY it wasn’t easier to get an ebook from library I started to feel angry. Angry with publishers and angry with people who think eBooks don’t matter.

I’m not this man’s librarian, I don’t work at his library, but I CARE if he gets to read books that he likes. I CARE if he isn’t able to because someone has placed an artificial limit on technology, whether it is because of fear or greed or whatever. I CARE.

This is why library and eBook issues matter. This is why we have to care. As long as publishers are denying access to people for no good reason we HAVE to keep caring, we have to keep fighting the good fight.


29 thoughts on “Why Library and eBooks Issues Matter

  1. Ok so I FEEEELLL your pain. And totally agree that publishers are the problem. They are tooooo greedy. I also feel that libraries/librarians sometimes just roll over and take this crap from publishers and I also feel that we have our hands tied with so many other issues that plague libraries. Good post.


    1. Okay, while I agree that the publishers have to figure out how to deal with libraries, a lot of people earn their livings from the sales of books – authors, editors, printers, binders, booksellers to name a few. It they stop being able to make a living at it, they will stop publishing books. Then what will we put in our libraries? We need to stop blaming each other and find a way to work together.


      1. Deborah,
        No where in my post do I suggest that anyone should stop making a living from books. I’ll assume you were responding to Sheena’s comment.

        I do have to point out that as far as I know libraries have been trying to work with publishers. I know that ALA President Molly Raphael and others have met with many different publishing groups over this last year. While I agree that we need to work together we also need to acknowledge that perhaps publishers don’t want to be BFFs with libraries. We need to be prepared and able to stand up for the rights of our patrons and communities.


  2. Good post! I also sometimes feel like I’m reaching saturation on the e-book issue, but then I read something like your post and feel invigorated again. I always get frustrated when I have to explain to a patron that no, the title they want isn’t available in Overdrive (which is what our library has) because the publisher hasn’t allowed it. Hopefully, the patron understands … although I’ve spoken to a few who don’t understand that our entire collection (yes, the entire thing) isn’t duplicated in e-book format. That’s a whole ‘nother conversation…..


  3. Let us not forget that Apple’s iPad is a perfectly valid option that requires only the Overdrive app to function (which is free). — No computer required!


    1. Well not a perfectly valid option. Since he doesn’t have a computer he would lack access to many of the features. The high price, color screen and weight (yes for some people, especially those who are disabled or elderly it is too heavy) would make it my last choice for someone in this situation.


  4. I hate to be that person, but I would like to point out that the Sony Reader Wi-Fi will connect directly to a libraries Overdrive collection and allow patrons to download without a computer.
    So I wonder if it has more to do with the companies making the eReaders and wanting to lock customers into their stores.


    1. Hi Rebecca
      Several other people mentioned the Sony WiFi option on Twitter. It sounds like a good option I haven’t used it personally so I don’t know how easy the process is especially for someone who isn’t tech savvy.

      I do have to point out that even if it works great there is still the issue (that I’ve addressed many times in the past though not directly in this post) of lack of access to titles from Simon & Schuster or MacMillan, no new titles from Hatchet or Penguin, really expensive titles from Random House and not more than 26 times from HarperCollins. So there are still a LOT of reasons to CARE.

      You’re right ebooks is a large issue and part of it is producers of devices like Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble wanting to lock consumers into a platform. Libraries are caught in the middle of the ebook wars.


  5. I own the Sony PRS T1 as do quite a few of the customers who use the library eBook service from my library. It works very well without a computer so long as you can access WiFi.

    I completely agree about the lack on content from top publishers. There lack of support for public library eLending is disgusting.


  6. You don’t need a computer with the Sony Wifi per se but there is a firmware upgrade that some models require so you wouldn’t know for sure until you opened it up. Searching on it is brutal though b/c the screen refreshes every time you scroll. A smaller cheaper Android tablet would probably be more useful – I agree iPads are very heavy for older or infirm patrons.

    My more immediate concern with any of the tablets or this ereader is: can he really use / get Wifi in a hospital? Usually they make you shut off your phones b/c of interference.


    1. Excellent point Kyla. The Nurse seemed to think it was available and she would know better than me. Of course I’m sure it varies by hospital and probably section


  7. “The problem is he is not really happy with the choices they are making for him”

    THAT us the problem, not e readers. As a librarian (yes, MLS and all that) I do not think that libraries should be spending money on ebooks. Buying an ebook limits the use to only those who can afford a reader. Not everyone. So I see shrinking funding going to buy duplicate material for a limited few.

    The library should be the place of last resort of the masses, not cater to those few who choose to buy into technology. E readers are great; I have two. I made the decision to purchase it knowing full well going to have to pay for my books for it. I do not expect my library to spend money so I can read a book in a format useless to perhaps the great majority of tax payers in the town. That is not fair.

    I know there are valid uses for public domain ebooks which can free up funds for other uses, but what about the poor kid whose family has no money, and wants to read Moby Dick? Only to find the library did not buy a replacement copy so they could purchase an e book of the latest mystery?

    Why is it that most librarians seem to feel they have to jump on each and every technology bandwagon that comes along even if it has a limited use? Are we so afraid that we will miss out on something? or do we need to pretend to be cool? Look at all the moldering cassette, VHS, and record collections out there. Yet every book purchased at those times (that has not been used to death) is still perfectly readible.

    To date no one has ever beat the technology of a printed book which works for the same for everyone. In these days of greatly reduced budgets, why divert funds for those few?


    1. Wow Jon. There is a lot of anger in that comment. Let me attempt to address a couple of things.

      You raise several interesting points, including funding issues, that I addressed in my very controversial post – Should Libraries Get Out of the eBook business. https://librarianbyday.net/2012/03/07/should-libraries-get-out-of-the-ebook-business/

      While I do have may moments where I still wonder that it is not because I believe that eBooks are a fad or a bandwagon. eBooks are not a bandwagon (nor were VHS etc) these are information or entertainment (we certainly purchase our fair share of fiction)in a format that our customers not only prefer but are demanding. Think of them as large print or audio, libraries buy duplicate copies in those formats all the time.

      I am not, nor do I know of anyone advocating that libraries stop purchasing classics to purchase ebooks. If you were a frequent blog reader you would know that I often talk about the digital divide, lack of access for socio and economic classes. eBooks are a complicated issue and one that libraries are struggling to work through. I do not claim to know what the solution is, but I do know that out right dismal in such an angry and flip was as yours is not the solution.

      I’m truly sorry about the resentment you feel towards technology and ebook. I hope you can find a way to see past it and recognize the needs of our patrons.


  8. This blog post resonated with me. I still have pinging around in my head a phrase I read the other day in an Amazon.com ad for the Amazon Prime lending program. The ad copy contrasted the always-available, unlimited-copies model they have, with the probably-already-checked-out, limited-copies model of “traditional libraries”. Anyone who doesn’t know how ebooks are sold to libraries would assume – and, I think, are deliberately intended to assume, by dint of the phrase “traditional libraries”, that some shusher-in-a-bun has decided, in the stuffy, old-fashioned way of “traditional libraries”, that it’s this way because librarians want it this way. Which is crazy. It’s this way because publishers can’t imagine doing business with libraries any other way.

    As a librarian and a user of both Overdrive and purchased ebooks/audiobooks, the idea that one is hampered by artificial limits, while the other provides access to unlimited digital copies, drives me crazy. What publishers have to realize is that the artificial limitations on free lending from libraries will not lead to more book sales – it will lead to people who want free ebooks finding other ways to get them. Which will mean more piracy, not more ebook sales.

    One more thought for Jon: I understand your passionate defense of the availability of paper books for the masses and the need to not lose sight of that mission in favor of shiny new toys. But if libraries think of themselves as the “resource of last resort” only, they risk severely underestimating the appeal of the “free stuff” model to those who can afford to buy books, but would rather borrow them. Is that really what we want them to do?


    1. Hi Jennifer
      I haven’t seen that Amazon ad yet – thanks for sharing it. It really is unfortunate that Amazon is choosing to paint traditional libraries in such a manner. Especially given they have their own issues with publishers (I won’t comment on who is wrong or right in that disagreement!) I certainly don’t see Amazon as competition for libraries too bad Amazon sees us as competition for them!

      You’re quite right in the second portion of your comment! We must serve all demographics of our communities.


      1. It’s on the Kindle Fire page on Amazon.com, under the headline “Read for Free with Amazon Prime” – it takes a little scrolling to reach that part of the ad.

        I agree that, as you say, the main problem is that it needs to get easier for patrons to download and use eBooks from libraries.

        It occurs to me that book publishers right now are about where music publishers were 10 years ago in terms of trying to keep existing models going in the face of technological change. I’m not sure how libraries will play a role in fixing this, although I hope that librarians, at least, will put energy into projects like unglue.it that do an end-run around the existing models!


  9. Why not approach the problem from the other side? Hospitals do have volunteer services that include a rolling “library” cart with books that have been donated. Maybe the volunteers desk can have a pre- loaded e-reader that stays within the hospital.


    1. Edie – That is certainly one of several possible solutions to this particular problem. The larger issue is that ebooks should be MUCH easier to get through lbiraries.


    2. I’m not sure about the situation in the US but in the UK this solution would raise some licensing concerns as content downloaded onto an ereader is normally for personal use. Agree with Bobbi though, as both a ebook borrower and a librarian. Demand for titles far outstrips the availability of ebooks in both academic and public libraries in the UK. I recently had to try and source some HE ebooks for a blind student with the intent that they could use the text to speech facility on ereaders to use them. Only a couple of items from the huge reading list were available as ebooks and the way our library download system works its unlikely that the student would be able to navigate it unaided.


  10. Barnes & Nobles nook has almost 2 million books that can be downloaded free, some of which are classics. The public library where I work has been working in conjunction with the local B&N and NCLive to find a more efficient process for downloading ebooks directly from the library rather than to a computer as a PDF file and sideloading it to the device. The library is getting ready to offer a new service of direct downloading via cloud. I can’t remember what it’s called, but it should make it easier to pick, click, and read.


  11. Hi Sharon
    Amazon has an extensive collection of free books as well. I’m just not comfortable telling someone that their reading choices are limited to the free books, especially given the quality of many of them.


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