What do you think about e-books?

This is a question that’s common among all libraries, and that came up at this year’s Candidates’ Forum: what to do about e-books? I don’t have a lot of answers, but I have more questions, and maybe some information. What’s important to you? Use my contact form, or email me at taa@anderson4goodnow.org.

  • How easy is it for you to access and read e-books?
  • How easy is it for you to find the books you want to read, whether electronic or paper?
  • How much space in the library should be paper books?
  • Should we focus more on e-books because they’re greener?
  • Should we focus more on paper books because they’re cheaper?
  • Should the priorities for the childrens’ collection be different?

Goodnow’s staff has to think about all of this, but the Goodnow Board is responsible for acting as the link between the library and the town, and for overseeing the library’s acquisitions policy. Both the staff and the Board have important roles in deciding what’s best for Goodnow.

I could go on for pages about the pros and cons of e-books and paper books. E-books don’t take up shelf space, but you can’t browse the library shelves for them. Not everyone has something they can use to read e-books, but most people can use a paper book. (My mother used to transcribe books into Braille as a volunteer. Reading really is for everyone.) E-books don’t use paper, but they also require electronics, whose manufacture is one of the dirtiest industries on the planet. You can carry a book anywhere; its battery never dies, and usually it will be just fine, if a little bruised, if you drop it.

Before you give your final answers, one thing that you may not know about is the difference in cost between e-books and paper books. Buying an e-book for a library is nothing like spending a dollar or two for the latest thriller on your Kindle.

When the library buys a paper book, it owns the book. One person at a time can check it out, but until it wears out, or until the library decides to remove it from the shelves, any number of people can read it. On the other hand, for that brand-new bestseller, the library might have to buy several copies of the paper book to satisfy demand, then somehow get rid of most of them when demand drops, to make room for the next one. Large-print editions are a separate expense, and take up even more shelf space, but they’re a necessity.

E-books can solve some of these problems: there’s no physical limit on how many people can read one at the same time, they don’t take up shelf space, they never wear out, and the same book can become a large-print edition on my device, if I need that, but not on yours, if you don’t. But: the library usually can’t buy an e-book. It can only license it, on terms set by the publisher.

Depending on the book and the publisher, the license may include any number of restrictions:

  • An embargo, so that the e-book is not made available until some period after the physical publication. This is much like the time you sometimes still have to wait to get a new movie on video.
  • A limit on the number of copies of the book that can be checked out at the same time.
  • A limit on the number of times that the book can be checked out at all–for example, after 26 uses, the license might have to be renewed.
  • A time limit, after which the license must be renewed.

An e-book for a library will typically cost several times as much as its paper counterpart. This sometimes makes sense, because the library only has to buy one electronic version of the latest hot novel, rather than half a dozen, and won’t have any spare copies to dispose of later on, or need a lot of extra shelf space to hold them. For an essential history book that’s not going to be in high demand, but that we want to have in the library permanently, e-books don’t seem to me to make much sense: the paper copy is a relatively small initial cost, and after that, just a small bit of shelf space.

There’s nothing here that’s “wrong”, though sometimes I feel like the publishers should be willing to take more of a hit for the sake of our libraries. But they have to make money, or they won’t be able to publish the next book, or sign the next great author. It is for Goodnow to decide how to allocate resources to best serve the community, and for library organizations to work with the publishers, or even with the Congress, to come up with a solution that will allow everyone access through their library without bankrupting the libraries, or limiting their collections.

I found some interesting reading about this online. The American Library Association has been concerned about this issue for at least a decade: ALA digital content working group lists the issues they’re working on. The Authors Guild successfully fought a Maryland law that forced publishers to license every e-book to libraries: Authors Guild statement. This explains why the individual states cannot legislate a solution for their libraries: any legal change regarding e-book licensing to libraries would have to go through Congress.

There aren’t easy answers to any of this. What do you think?