Ebooks and Beyond: The Challenge for Public Libraries

By Duncan, Ross | Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Ebooks and Beyond: The Challenge for Public Libraries


Duncan, Ross, Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services


A survey of Sunshine Coast library users indicates that there is a high level of interest in ebooks and e-audiobooks and also that there is strong demand for technologies such as the iPhone, iPad and Amazon's Kindle. These local trends, mirrored internationally, present public libraries with a challenge to dramatically improve their virtual offerings, or lose relevance in this emerging high growth area. They also have a responsibility to play a leadership educational role in informing their communities about e-readers, content and associated trends.

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The competition for content and the race to develop the 'killer' e-reader have both reached a frenetic pace. Amazon, Google, Apple, Sony--the global leaders in computing and personal electronics are all scrambling to be the first or the best in developing the next big thing in the electronic books arena. After years of resisting the ebook, publishers are now scrambling to go online because, like the music industry before them, they have suddenly realised they may have just two choices--go digital or die.

As Kerry O'Brien observed in the ABC's 7.30 report 18 March 2010

   In the past decade, there's barely been an
   industry left untouched by the virtual tsunami
   that is the internet. You can now add books to
   that list.

With increasing regularity, stories are appearing in the media about the growth in popularity of ebooks. With predictions that the ebook will account for over 50% of purchases worldwide within 10 years, (1) it is critical for libraries to implement solutions and provide relevant information to the whole community. Concerns are also increasing internationally about the impact of libraries freely lending ebooks. (2)

With the release of Apple's iPad, and its potential impact as an e-reader, (3) technology related issues constraining the growth of popularity of ebooks in the past seem about to disappear forever.

In April 2010 a survey of 10 questions was distributed electronically to 40,000 library members on the Sunshine Coast to ascertain the level of usage of ebooks and electronic audiobooks (e-audiobooks) and emerging local trends.

The results indicate that there is a high level of interest in ebooks and e-audiobooks in the community and also that there is strong demand for emerging technologies such as the iPhone, iPad and Amazon's Kindle. These local trends, mirrored internationally, present libraries with a challenge to dramatically improve their virtual offerings, or lose relevance in this emerging high growth area.

Ebooks: a turning point

While electronic books have existed since the 1970s when Project Gutenberg began digitising text, there has been a lack of quality devices on which to read the material. With large global companies now focusing on the development of such devices and more titles rapidly becoming available, we are at a turning point for the industry.

Ebooks have now reached mainstream adoption in the consumer sector in the US. In 2009 the Kindle was Amazon's best selling product and had more than 390,000 titles available. Kindle editions account for half of Amazon's total sales of books which are available both in print and for the Kindle. (4)

Australian public libraries, such as Brisbane City, have been experimenting with ebooks since 2001 (5) with little initial success. However improving technology and increased availability of content have led to many of the constraints that hindered the expansion of this area of the market falling away.

The recent improvements to the Kindle, the release of Apple's iPad, and the growing number and capabilities of many other mobile devices, mean that all libraries must assess the impacts of such technology on the services they offer. Libraries need to pay closer attention to their market, their users, and adjust service types and service delivery models accordingly. …

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