Viewpoint: Considering e-books

During the past year e-books have become somewhat of a problem for Swedish libraries. The reason for this, interestingly enough, is that libraries want to do so much but don’t always have the necessary means. Leading library spokespersons have even suggested that the question of e-books is a watershed issue for public libraries. Is this really the case? Hardly.

The demand for e-books in Sweden today is fairly limited. Libraries point to increased demand but the fact is that there has only been a slight change from an actual zero point a few years ago.

What we’re seeing here is the same sort of technological stress which has characterized social media – you have to have them but no one knows what to do with them and few patrons ask for them. It’s interesting that the demand for e-books in libraries is still relatively small and it’s important here not to blame library patrons. It seems as though Swedish readers aren’t entirely convinced of the benefits of e-books.

The presumed advantages of e-books seem, to a great extent, to be championed by book publishers and manufacturers of the technological platforms needed to read e-books.Who then should libraries listen to? The relationship between libraries and publishers is not entirely unproblematic due mainly to the fact that publishers require payment for every individual download which means that increase in demand will have economic consequences for libraries. Currently publishers have the last word regarding pricing even though libraries have been persistent in trying to persuade them to consider alternative pricing structures.

Reading about this kind of discussion can be rather tiresome.

Access to e-books isn’t a question of democracy. Reading is. Free loans in public libraries are. E-books aren’t So – what to do?

There is a general assumption that the use of e-books will increase and this expectation is probably quite reasonable. The electronic industry, which is rapidly dominating our everyday lives, seizes every chance to demonstrate its own indispensability – and they’re certainly not going to retreat from this stance now. The publishing and entertainment sectors are playing the same game. We’ve probably never seen such a strong concentration of commercial forces in action.With e-books however, things are taking a little longer. Just why this is so is a complex question and can’t really be answered without exhaustive studies which, at the present point in time, are conspicuously absent. How libraries can and should conduct themselves is, however, another matter. Up until a few years ago it might have been reasonable to assume that libraries would simply demand that publishers refrain from offering secondrate financial solutions for products that aren’t even in demand – libraries had more important things to occupy themselves with. The focus was user needs. Perhaps it still is, but in another sense. Today libraries want to offer new technology because they believe patrons need it. This is a somewhat misguided version of traditional public library goals to educate and cultivate. And this has never been as clearly evident as in the case of e-books. Perhaps libraries should relax and let publishers muddle about with e-books until there is a large enough demand to justify libraries working seriously with them. Only when patrons start to ask for e-books can libraries then consider the best way to integrate them with daily library operations.

That’s probably the best scenario. There is actually a risk that what we’re seeing is a new Betamax situation. Betamax? A few of us might remember the ‘revolutionary’ new video technology in the 1970s featuring large cassettes, which was quickly supplanted by the much more manageable VHStechnology. If the public aren’t interested in today’s e-book formats then new formats will inevitably emerge. That’s why it’s important not to rush into anything, but rather wait for alternatives to appear as they surely will – in six months or so. And who knows? Maybe, but only maybe, the hubristic technological frenzy publishers are caught up in will exhaust itself and ultimately the book will reign supreme in its classic codex form – a format we know that public library patrons appreciate.

We’ll just have to wait and see.

Joacim Hansson
The Document Academy and the Department of
Library and Information Science
Linnaeus University, Sweden
Translated by Greg Church B.

Professor The Document Academy and the Department of Library and Information Science Linnaeus University, Sweden