Books vs. eBooks, Libraries vs. Publishers

Weirdly enough, I don't often post here as a librarian. Or, I should say, about being a librarian, specifically. But lately there's a continually rising trend so disturbing I can't keep mum about it any longer.  Namely, libraries are – or are planning to start – getting rid of physical books in favor of digital/eBooks. Re-design plans for library space have either been set in motion or are under discussion. "New" library floorplans strip book collections down to the bestsellers, the books most checked out. Older, less obviously popular books will be escorted to the door, their mylar covers ripped off and security tags removed.

You may say, "Big deal. These books aren't getting checked out often anyway, plus the space could be better used housing tech labs, private rooms for meetings or study or teleconferencing – things people actually use."

If you're bloodless, unappreciative of things like serendipitous discovery of new books and authors, topics and the free exchange of ideas, good for you. Your ignorance precedes you and isn't likely to go away, thanks to your closed-minded logic. But if, for the rest of us, the very thought of the "libri" root of the word library still evokes actual books you can hold in your hands, flip through and enjoy the heft of actual papers glued between two covers, this is positively chilling.

Ironically, now libraries willing and in the process of chucking print books are running into a bit of a hitch. Namely, it's finally dawning on publishers they're becoming the only game in town, the one source of the very digital books libraries need. And, sure, they were the suppliers for paper and glue books, too. But those cost a lot more money to produce, store and ship than their digital counterparts. Digital books, they're realizing, are a true cash cow. And who needs eBooks in order to provide books to their patrons? Why, the same libraries heaving print books out the door. The same who need to provide newly electronically-enlightened patrons with copies of digital books they assume will, or have, supplanted the old fashioned book book.

So publishers are raising their prices for eBooks, tightening up their licenses in order to continue making money – not such an odd thing for a business. Prices are raising not 10 or 20%, or even 50%. Try numbers like 300 % over the prices they were just a couple weeks ago – at least in the case of mega-giant Random House.

Publishers like Penguin are refusing to sell eBooks to libraries at all, figuring they're missing out on a hefty profit when these books are checked out over and over, never wearing out, never needing to be replaced. Because, for the foreseeable future, digital is forever. Some are in negotiations with libraries to charge per however many checkouts they deem normal for an equivalent paper book, estimating how long book books last before needing to be replaced. And libraries are horrified, justifiably or not.

There's a lot that's up in the air but who'll be suffering most? Ah, that's right. The readers. The public, the students, the whomever is queueing up to make use of these books. And their patience won't last long. The first time they go to check out a new book and hear, "Umm… We don't have that in electronic form because the publisher is charging too much money for it and we won't buy from them" I don't think they'll find it in their hearts to feel too badly for the library itself. Rather, I think they'll scream their heads off, holding onto their Nooks, Amazon Kindles, Sony eReaders and whatever else is coming down the pike.

Library patrons are keeping libraries in business. They're paying property taxes which pay for books, maintenance, little things like librarian's salaries. And, in exchange, they expect service, an institution that meets their needs. When libraries are at war with publishers patrons don't care. They expect one or both to suck it up, get over it and provide the services and materials they need.

When books are swallowed up by digital books, libraries have become computer labs instead of storehouses of information and the world has rolled over in response to the pressure of staying on the cutting edge of technology, where will humans be? At what other time in history has so much change been forced upon people in such a short time? And, where will the non-technical people be? Left in the dust, I guess.

Luddite I am not, proof positive being my presence here, my possession of an iPhone and a Kindle Fire. But I'm also a bibliophile. My house is bulging at the seams with books numbered in the thousands: the old-fashioned sort made of paper. What I am is concerned and one of the things bothering me most is the possibility the world outside the library profession doesn't realize all that's going on right now, all the turmoil, certainly, but the threat to paper books as well. Or, the threat to paper books especially.

I hope you'll take what I'm saying here and turn it into library activism, on whatever scale you can. Maybe things where you are haven't – and even won't, for a long time or forever – changed but for those of us in major metropolitan areas things are changed already. Libraries are jumping on the bandwagon to be ahead of the curve. Some have renovated already, taking out the books, modelling themselves after the now-defunct Borders, putting coffee bars where books used to be.

All well and good but there's more at stake. The battle between publishers and libraries is joined and getting more bloody by the minute. Being a librarian, I'm trying to straddle the line, eager to provide eBooks to those who want them but also stubbornly against sacrificing books to do so. I'm one of those who walks in the library stacks, one finger on book spines like a child running a stick along a picket fence. When a title, or an image strikes my fancy I love pulling it off the shelf, reading the dustjacket blurb and considering if it would suit me or not. If those books are no longer there I'll never stumble on them. I'll never experience the excitement of finding a new-to-me author not recommended by Amazon, because someone else who bought a certain book also bought this one. And while I can page through lists of eBooks, neatly organized in alphabetical order, that grows tedious awfully quickly.

While understanding the upsurge in providing eBooks, I also think all this is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Libraries are turning from books (who'd ever believe that would happen?) so as not to seem old-fashioned, and now publishers and libraries are at each other's throats. Those without e-readers are being shoved out into the cold and books more than a few years old are either going to used book sales or being pulped. It's a mess, quite frankly. One I'm expected to stay on top of, to keep abreast of what's new and generally support the library and its new mission.

Between you and me, I wish I'd been born much earlier, even long enough ago I'd be turned to dust by now. Because I'd rather not have lived to see all that's happening. Words can't describe how much I hate what's being lost. Call me old fashioned, or backward, or whatever you'd like. Honestly, I don't care. What I dread is the day I have a grandchild who grows up without need of a bookcase, because all s/he needs is a pouch to hold an e-reader.

The scary thing is, this may not be far off the mark. And I still don't want to be here to see it.


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5 thoughts on “Books vs. eBooks, Libraries vs. Publishers

  1. Thanks for your excellent essay. I am going to pass it on to our local librarian.
    I live in a small village with a wonderful library and we have been adding book shelves to hold more books. The books we have are fortunately not being moved out or destroyed even though e-books will be soon be available from the library.
    I love reading books on my iPad, but I still buy books that I want to keep on my shelves so I can get my hands on them, write a few notes in them, etc.


  2. Mona, you are so, so fortunate. How many of us wouldn’t give anything to be in that position and I hope there are many others with libraries like yours. So far my library is in the planning stage. We’ve been going on field trips to other libraries to see how they do things. It’ll be up to the powers that be where we go from here. Sigh. And thanks for your kind words ‘re: my post. Would love to know what s/he thinks.


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