E-Books? So What's the Big Deal?

Article excerpt

Navigating the current e-book market is no small feat and has librarians confused, frustrated, infuriated, discouraged, and in some cases ready to throw in the towel. Yet librarians still need to provide patrons, including teens, with the same resources they did prior to the e-book craze, and potentially provide access to richer resources made possible through technological advances.

Why Is It Such a Challenge?

These are uncharted waters for all of the players in the e-book ecosystem. Publishers are reinventing publishing for the digital world; libraries have to rethink their traditional models of service. Distributors and authors are also carving out different niches. Each player has a tremendous amount at stake, and with new twists occurring sometimes daily, it's understandable that we all want to hold onto the familiar territory of the traditional print world. (Un)fortunately, this is not an option as e-books find their way into more and more readers' hands.

The e-book environment is in seemingly constant flux as publishers test new business models, self-publishing becomes a true contender in the book world, and competing vendors vie for the largest e-book catalog. Because of the rapid and sometimes surprising changes, librarians have found themselves in an uncomfortably reactive state rather than as a force that can help shape the e-book market--at least as it pertains to libraries.

Why Should We Care?

Librarians must get reading materials into the hands of their patrons. We want to support a nation of readers, and we strongly believe that our patrons should have access to the reading materials they want regardless of content or format. We want to connect readers to authors. The library is a place for discovering new authors and experimenting with new genres. If our patrons want to read a book in print, that's fine. If they prefer a digital format, that's fine, too. However, for the young adult reader looking for one of the the House of Night series or the Hunger Games series in digital form, the librarian has to say, "Sorry, we don't have that here."

According to a recent Pew Internet Project report, "Younger Americans' Reading and Library Habits," high school students aged sixteen and seventeen are the most reliant on the library for reading materials and more likely than other age groups to be interested in checking out preloaded e-readers from the library. (1) To continue to support the reading habits of young adults, it behooves librarians to be a strong voice for their young patrons and provide fair library access to e-books.

It is a conundrum that many patrons are not aware they can get their e-book fix at the library; most libraries offer e-books, and many have plans to increase their e-book offerings. Though libraries do have some e-books, a number of factors do not make it easy for the patron to borrow them. Between complete unavailability--the library can't get it--to costs that prevent the library from purchasing a title or purchasing enough e-books so there is not a 100-person waitlist, to difficulty in actually finding and downloading a title, librarians have much work ahead.

In this climate of uncertainty and volatility, librarians must articulate their needs in providing services and the value they bring to publishers, distributors, authors, and readers, as well as funders and taxpayers. Change and controversy are also a time of opportunity. Librarians must take advantage of the current volatility and shape the unknown into models that work for libraries. Furthermore, in an age of constant budget cuts, if libraries don't keep up with current demands, they risk being seen as irrelevant or out of touch with user needs.

Looking into the future of e-books and digital content, we are in the nascent stages of what could be possible through technology, such as enhanced or interactive e-books. Libraries need to take charge now and in the coming years as e-books become more and more advanced, sophisticated, and integrated with other information services. …