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eBooks: Libraries at the Tipping Point Online Conference
Ebook What-Ifs: Issues that Impact Scenario Planning
Me (!), Bobbi Newman, and Matt Hamilton + moderated by Josh Hadro

Questions about specific eBook scenarios were posed to us.  Here’s what we talked about.  Twitter hashtag to follow the conversation during our session was #ebookswhatif

Question: What if there is a Google Book Search terminal in every library?

I tackled this question first.  The Google Book Search settlement, if approved, will let every public library building have access to a terminal with access to the Google Books orphan works collection (in copyright but out of print), and academic libraries get access through terminals as well.  If there is a terminal in every library, not a darn thing will change.  For academic libraries, most of what was scanned has the most potential for people doing research on academic topics.  The academic libraries got more flexibility on the number of terminals and the types of access.  For public libraries, the question is: how useful is that scanned material to our users?  For special libraries, same thing – that material is not highly useful.  School libraries didn’t factor into the settlement at all, which is very worrisome.  Having one terminal per building with access to something very specific is hearkening back to the days of the single-purpose CD ROM stations.  People think of information as ubiquitous and think of everything as being everywhere.  A single-use terminal won’t be very helpful to people very much.  Plus there are restrictions on what you can do with the books (printing, copying, search, annotations) depends on how much the libraries paid Google for the extra privilege of accessing the information.  This means an inevitable inequitable set-up in different libraries.  I just don’t think a Google terminal will get used in our public library.  There is no information in the settlement about the user access data and user privacy, but Google would have sole full access to it, which is worrisome.  ALA and other groups also worry about how much providing good access and printing/copying will cost libraries.  I think that some libraries would not participate in this project based on the privacy issues alone.  But a lot of people don’t worry about their privacy.  Up to 15% of what Google scans can be excluded from this collection at their discretion.  What would Google choose to exclude?   I think that the cost issue will be the limitation.  Google has not told us how much they will charge us to allow people to print or download, money that we have to collect ourselves and then split the money between the Books Registry and Google.  The unknown cost issue is frightening.
Bobbi agreed that privacy is a concern as well as space.  A computer whose sole purpose is to access Google Books is not likely to be useful to her users.  It becomes a customer service issue when a computer stands unused.
Matt agreed that the material in the collection is not something that his users will be drawn to use.  They don’t see demands for these types of books that are more academic and esoteric.

Question: What if the price of eReaders drops to zero?
Matt tackled this one first.  The price of eReader are dropping drastically.  What if the device is thrown in for free with the purchase of a certain number of eBooks?  This would result in a flood of cheap eReaders into the market.  Can libraries meet demand and utilize this quick influx to the market?  Matt thinks it’s incredibly likely that this is going to happen, whether the publishers are subsidizing it or that it’s a contract-based vendor subsidy.  For many, this seems like a possible death knell for libraries.  A world with free or nearly free eReaders and cheap or free content subsidized by advertising.  The democratizing role that public libraries play, our commitment to intellectual freedom, makes us more relevant than ever.  If we see free eReaders we may not see a lot of change in demand for our collection, which would create a complacency in library staff that is dangerous.  Over time, will we see generations of kids who first learn to read on electronic devices and use them for textbooks and homework?  Will paper books become more of a rare and exotic item?  New formats combining text with multimedia should be something we consider too.  Libraries should assert our values of universal access and intellectual freedom into the emerging standards of the cloud and future technological and legal developments.  ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom should be bending the ear of the FCC and other government agencies who are currently giving away the public good to corporations to destroy.  Libraries could be the tax-funded space for data and form the infrastructure that helps our local communities share data.  There has to be a public good component.
I chimed in and said that there is huge potential for demand increasing with a zero barrier to entry for eReader technologies.  With that huge, and fast, an increase our library would not be able to meet eBook demands.  The questions of format, different device platforms, and the technical support staff would be asked to perform would be a problem.  We are ill-equipped to handle this kind of change so quickly.  We’re ill-equipped to handle any change quickly, really.
Then Matt agreed that the differences in format and devices are a huge barrier for libraries.  It’s a huge physical challenge to get each staff member to have hands-on experience with all the various eReaders and formats.
I agreed and said is it possible to have enough of these eReaders to give everyone enough time to learn on them?  The libraries would get the free eReaders at the exact same time, or likely after, the public got them.  We would therefore end up giving some bad service because we’re unprepared to meet these needs.  Another issue would be bandwidth – if we’re trying to download a whole bunch of eBooks simultaneously, our infrastructure could not handle it.

Question: What if the DRM issue went away tomorrow?
Bobbi got this question.  DRM is a huge frustration.  Every eReader, platform, and format combination has a different set of challenges.  No device that allow for library eBook use allows for direct-to-device lending yet.  So, what if the Librarian of Congress declared 3 years from now that libraries are given huge leeway with regards to copyright and DRM?  A lot of what prevents users from using library eBooks with their chosen devices is the DRM.  The clunky experience at the library makes people turn to the direct paid consumer products instead.  If DRM went away, demand for our eContent would increase by huge amounts.  There would be a bandwidth impact here too.  A lot o the library’s policies about in-library computer access would need to change too to more easily allow for access to downloadable content.  Even if DRM went away, how does that affect the patrons who already tried accessing the collections and had negative experiences.  Patrons expect that the Kindle and other eReaders will work with library eBooks.  Libraries have to be the ones to break the news to people that our eContent won’t work with their devices, which is beyond our control.  But we sound like the bad guys.
I agreed that we would see an unprecedented increase in demand, but without DRM that increase in demand would at least be a good thing.  The first time experience with library eBooks is often bad.  Our stats show that we lose a lot of first-time users of our eBooks — they don’t come back.  Maybe they would come back if access was easier.  I gave up too and turned to a Kindle app on my Android phone.  Comparing my experiences with that to my experiences with library eBooks is distressing.
Bobbi replied that the eAudioBook process is a lot smoother, but the eBook process is a lot harder…largely because of connecting to a computer and go through the more cumbersome process.  Also, since you can’t download most eBooks in most libraries within most libraries, we have to break the news to them that we don’t allow downloads in the library.  (Sarah’s note: this is a policy that libraries need to change.)
Matt sees the same thing where he works too.  If DRM went away, doors could open for ways to deliver services in libraries.

“eBooks: Libraries at the Tipping Point Online Conference: eBook What-Ifs: Issues that Impact Scenario Planning”

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