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Do e-readers really have a place in libraries? February 4, 2010

Posted by michaelpawlus in Uncategorized.
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I have to give credit to Wayne Bivens-Tatum for writing an awesome post about how libraries should deal with new technologies.  I think that people do expect libraries to look current and up-to-date to a degree but I don’t think they expect libraries to be ahead of the curve.  While relaxing a bit on trying to make use of every technology could take some of the thunder out of the next emerging issues themed conference (or unconference as the case may be) it actually leaves libraries in a good position as they can let the market have its say first before just jumping in to uncharted waters.

I do think some new developments do lend themselves to early adoption or at least consideration but I think at this time I am ready to say that the e-reader is no such development.

First, the market is just way too unstable right now and there is still a lot of tweaks that every producer needs to work out.  I know that I can be really hard on the Kindle but the fact is they were the first and let the hype get ahead of them and now they are capitulating every other minute and they just don’t seem to be in control at all anymore.

They seemed to want to stick to this whole e-ink idea and support that format by really archaic accessories like the Kandle.  Then, it seems they have decided to abandon the e-ink and move to a touchscreen.  They seemed to want to stay in control of pricing their products and as we have all seen they lost that battle as well.  In a moment of panic they even went back in and removed content remotely from user’s device again (same link as preceding) after admitting what a terrible move it was last time.

By turning a critical eye to the Kindle’s latest set of problems, I am not endorsing the new Apple iPad.  Though some have already run rampant with visions of futuristic library filled with a wall of tablet computers, the iPad has its own set of issues not least of which being the price.  The other issue is with EPUB the e-book format supported by Apple.  While EPUB, which is a free, open standard is an improvement on the proprietary format Amazon was licensing it still needs to be worked on to better support graphic novels and technical manuals.

Still, after all of these issues, I think the biggest problem right now is the restrictive licensing for most products with DRM at the moment.  I have mentioned before that I feel libraries more or less had to give up full ownership rights to journals but they shouldn’t give up the fight on books so easily.  Publishers as well can hopefully see the market in selling works with no DRM.

I do think the day of the e-reader in libraries will come but I don’t think there is any rush to get there.  In the meantime, librarians need to be actively involved in the conversations surrounding e-books and e-readers to try and influence decisions so they work on the library’s favor.  When libraries assemble and speak with one common message they can be a powerful force.  So, on one hand libraries should give some new technologies time to mature a bit before buying in they should also make their voice clear.  Libraries need a product that is accessible to all and fully supports all manner of material and libraries need to have some sort of control or ownership over digital files.  They need to fight for more open systems like BBC writer Bill Thompson has been advocating recently.  As of right now, even with all the excitement and media attention, I have to agree with Yale Librarian Joe Murphy; e-readers have no place in libraries… for now.

Where will the new repositories of knowledge be? January 25, 2010

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I am preparing for next term which starts a week early for me with an intensive week-long course on building digital libraries.  I was scanning some books today to get ready and came across the following quote which doubtlessly has been written countless times in other library-related tomes.  The quote is: “Libraries are society’s repositories for knowledge: temples, if you like, of culture and wisdom (Witten, 2003)”

Yes, Mr. Witten, I do like .  However, how long will libraries retain their temple like presence in society?  A few disturbing trends do paint a rather ominous picture.  One is the latest news from Amazon that they will make a new royalty model for ebooks which reflects an agency model instead of a wholesale model.  What this means is that Amazon is accepting that for electronic titles they are merely acting as an intermediary connecting a buyer and seller which differs from their operations in physical materials requiring titles to be bought and warehoused.  This is all being seen as a preemptive strike against Apple.  While this may result in better profits for publishers it also pushes electronic titles back further away from libraries.  Of course, Amazon was already dealing in licenses but maybe in the wholesale model talks could have continued to try and get Amazon to sell actual copies of digital works to some like libraries but now the whole metaphorical framework has changed.

Not to be a doom-sayer here but there is more: EBSCO has moved into become the exclusive distributor for a majority of popular magazines.  The more that these exclusive deals start to take place the less options that will exist for libraries when it comes to purchasing.  In this way, the fates of publishers and libraries are inextricably linked with publishers getting scared and feeling like they have to move into these types of deals to stay afloat.  One more piece of news: a handful of authors that once opposed the Google Books Settlement have now decided to support it.  Again, I use Google Books, it is a good service but they will more or less have a similar near-monopoly like EBSCO but over digitised books.

One more somewhat disturbing trend: the move towards cloud computing.  In the cloud model, stored data is saved out somewhere in a cloudy space.  Where you may ask?  Irrelevant.  It’s out there.  Sell your servers, your data is safe.  Proponents will argue that servers in the cloud are backed up and data is safe.  I don’t argue that but having so much centralised data just seems troubling when that centralised place isn’t the library?  (Here is a great article with lots more about cloud computing)

Really, I don’t want to sound too serious about any of this.  I get uncomfortable doing too much crystal ball gazing.  Everything may be fine.  However, I think libraries do need to be on the lookout for any potential Faustian bargains.  For centuries, libraries have stood as cultural temples, preserving ideas throughout history.  Do we really want libraries replaced by a bank of computers spread out in places unknown all over the globe and referred to only by the extremely ambiguous metaphor “cloud”?

Witten, I.H. & Bainbridge, D.I. (2003). How to build a digital library, Morgan Kaufmann Publishers: San Francisco, CA.