ebooks: Libraries at the Tipping Point

School and public librarians from around NEKLS participated in Library Journal’s virtual summit “ebooks: Libraries at the Tipping Point” upstairs on September 29. The day-long virtual conference included keynotes and panel discussions on “the evolving concept of the book in a digital world.”  I took notes throughout the day and have tried to boil those down into something manageable for you.  Slides, links to more information and related articles are included at the end of this post.

The day started with “Original Research on the Growing Importance of eBooks in Library Collections,” an overview of the Public, School and Academic ebook Survey with Ian Singer, VP, Content & Business Development for Media Source, Inc. Ian shared a slew of statistics related to eBooks; public libraries anticipate a 36% increase in eBook circulation and while only 7% of public libraries circulate preloaded eReading devices, 24% are considering it.

Ray Kurzweil, inventor and author, presented the first keynote, “Early in the Twenty-First Century, Knowledge and Content will Underlie Everything of Value.” With many a graph, Ray shared that technologies are shrinking, consumption of information technology and Internet traffic are doubling every year and new applications explode as new technologies are made available. Ebooks have matured–illumination, wireless access, processing power and displays are “there” and now it’s time to add video, interactive experiences and enriched content. That lead to a demonstration of “blio,” a new eReader Ray’s company co-created with Baker and Taylor.

We chose to sit in on the panel “The Tipping Point: How eBooks Impact Libraries, Publishers and Readers” with Barbara Fister, Eli Neiburger and Steve Potash. Eli entertained and shocked us with the revelation that “Libraries are screwed.” Why? Because libraries are linked to an outmoded model, the codex, along with the notion that the library is “the book temple.” Instead, libraries need to return to our mission of bringing together our community, focusing on its local history and unique items, and fostering the creation of new and collaborative works. In the 21st century, everyone is a publisher and the Library can be the publishing house that brings its community to the world.

Steve shared what OverDrive is doing to support their new vision of “See book, read book.” Along with negotiating to get more digital rights management-free ePub and MP3 formats into the collection, they have Library bin, or “buy it now” options for patrons to buy eContent and support the library’s collection budget. Because library staff are asked to be the ‘geek squad’ for new devices, OverDrive will provide front line tech support to help shoulder the initial burden of educating staff and patrons. The Library eBook Accessibility Program (LEAP) is another new development that provides specialized services and support to qualifying patrons for free. OverDrive is also working with Marvel, Tokyopop and Disney Digital Books to bring multimedia, manga and comics to library patrons with the open ePub standards. Check out these sites for more news about OverDrive: digitalbookmobile.com or www.digipalooza.com or overdriveblogs.com/library. The eBook Devices Cheat Sheet is another useful post that is worth a visit.

The second breakout session with Matt Hamilton, Sarah Houghton-Jan and Bobbi Newman covered a series of “what if” scenarios that impact planning for eContent in libraries.  They discussed the pros and cons of: 1) having a dedicated Google Book Search terminal in every library, 2) “what if the price of eReaders drops to zero?” and 3) “what if DRM issues went away tomorrow?” While the panel generally frowned at having a dedicated terminal just for Google Book Search, the idea of having a glut of free eReaders coming into the library was seen as likely to happen and possibly overwhelming to library staff. To the question of DRM, the panel asked what in-house barriers would still exist if the DRM barriers went away? Would library computers allow patrons to download the software/files they needed? As Bobbi said, “the cow is out of the barn” and libraries need to know about eReaders and eBooks and DRM because patrons are coming into the library asking questions and seeking assistance.

We took a poll and decided to hear Josh Greenberg, Jean Costello, Aaron Schmidt and Michael Bills talk about “eBooks and the Library User Experience” as our second breakout session. Josh started by reminding us that while books are physical items that can be dealt with in a physical way, eBooks aren’t. There is no need for holds, to wait for access, to physically move the eBook from one location to another, which is great if there is ubiquitous, frictionless access. However, there isn’t, so what “speed bumps” need to be put in place to balance the needs and demand for a new eBook service to make it manageable, fair and user-friendly? Jean, author of The Radical Patron (www.radicalpatron.com) blog affirmed that eBooks do signal a tipping point. Academics are eliminating print reference, magazines have gone digital and bookstores are turning into to books that just happen to have a few books. If digital media is making the publishing industry rethink how they do business, shouldn’t libraries also step up and embrace this new media rather than see it as just another media format to include in the collection. Libraries need to be represented in the shift from collections to collaboration and bring our strengths to the discussion–public trust and strong communities—and use them in new and creative ways. Aaron argued that people use “DRM-laden” services because they are easy to use, so libraries need to be involved in developing a device that is equally easy to use. He quoted Joan Frye-Williams, saying that Libraries need to be a kitchen, not a grocery store! (More about that quote: Library as domestic metaphor.) Michael presented Blio (again), explaining that it is a collaboration between Baker and Taylor, Ray Kurzwell, the National Federation for the Blind and some videogame designers. This new software-based eReader allows for embedded video and audio, creating an interactive experience.

Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine presented the midday keynote. The Internet was originally viewed as “tv only better,” but it morphed into a multi-device, multi-source connected communication source. The eBook fell into this same mindset – a book, only better. However in an environment where screens are everywhere and we can interact with technology with our full body, Kevin sees a shift from ownership of content to access. He asserts that while ‘Great books’ change or decline in cultural relevancy over time, “the joy and benefit of a sustained narrative – rendering a virtual world in your mind – won’t go away.” Books may lose their place as the center of our culture, displaced by something more powerful. He left us with this ‘metalesson’ – we will be forever learning new technology as new technology comes about. We need to learn how to learn.

R. David Lankes, Director of the Information Institute of Syracuse, University, NY and head of the Syracuse library science program, presented the closing keynote, “‘New Librarianship’ in the Age of the eBook” (www.DavidLankes.org).  [Listen to the Closing Keynote.] David started us with a thought experiment–what if for a $10 content fee on every device, you could get a connection from anywhere to download any book at any time? Would that be a good thing or bad thing for libraries and librarians? That begs the question, is a library’s value in its collection and building or is it in knowledge and making connections between people? David reiterated what Ray shared about the exponential explosion of storage, production and transmission of information, but shared that our ability to comprehend that information has NOT changed at all. So, we need to talk about learning and about the book as a metaphor in the digital world.

David spoke about reading as a quite and contemplative activity that involves the physical decoding of words and the cognitive decoding of meaning. While part of reading is isolating, at the same time it can be very social – we like to talk about books, share books, and recommend books to others. In the digital world, we can organize and connect books to blogs, communities, movies, soundtracks, and applications because everything online can be connected with 1′s and 0′s. We can create new, personalized connections to books – we can create “recommender systems.” We have to move away from thinking about eBooks as physical, instead viewing them as an interface and center of a conversation. How can eBooks and devices be improved to allow authoring and creation and annotation? We learn through absorption and production processes and eBooks can allow us to do both.

David feels there is a market for producing materials. Just as the app store allows us to personalize our phone and orchestrate or author our phone environment, we should be able to personalize our eReaders. He insists that we need to stop waiting for “THEM” to figure out how to use eReaders to build knowledge, that this is OUR problem/opportunity. Librarians need to build an eReader that doesn’t disappoint us. We have the network infrastructure, the necessary open source platforms, the standards, the relationships to authors and publishers and the foundational data necessary to do the job. We need to focus on conversations and learning, not reading. Libraries, says David, should be thrilled with eBooks and not scared by them – we have to take this opportunity to get into the game and shape it. We need to think beyond artifacts and physical limitations and realize that librarians are the most innovative thing to come out of libraries. If our mission is to improve our community through knowledge, how do we do that? Lead!

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