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Libraries and e-books: The challenge of digital ‘ownership’

By Nicole Hennessy

Westlake

In 2010, Westlake Porter Public Library spent $12,500 on e-books, and, just a year later in 2011, that number increased to $47,350.

This year, it’s gone up again to $55,000.

But no matter what the budget allows for, publishers, weary of the piracy that has plagued the music and movie industries, often make it difficult for libraries to obtain electronic versions of books.

For this reason, Web librarian Matt Weaver recently posted a petition to the library’s website.

“If you read library e-books, you have probably had the experience of looking for an author or a title – maybe even a really popular series – and the library doesn’t have it,” the post reads.

“If you have asked staff why we don’t offer it, you have learned that often, no matter how much we would like to, we are not allowed to buy those e-books. Why? Several major publishers refuse to allow libraries to lend their e-books, even though we continue to lend print copies of the same titles.”

Like many people, because she is not a “digital native” by nature, Mary Worthington, the library’s assistant director, savors traditional books — the weight of the pages as they pile on the left, helping gauge progress, the texture of the paper.

However, she felt compelled to familiarize herself with e-books, of which the library currently has 3,483.

From her perspective, there are many benefits to digital books, one that Weaver mentioned as well. That is, when it comes to generic romance or mystery series, people don’t tend to reread each book. Rather, they follow the author. In situations like this, it makes sense to conserve paper.

Worthington realizes this, but she just can’t shake her love of paper, not just in terms of books, but things like calendars and greeting cards, too. And though she knows things are going more and more digital, she never sees the print book going away.

Still, many customers express frustration when it comes to their inability to rent books digitally.

While Westlake’s collection continues to grow, it’s complicated. Unlike print books, libraries must purchase e-books through a third party rather than directly from the publisher.

“It’s been a crazy, crazy couple of years, in terms of e-books; it really has,” Weaver said. “You usually don’t go two weeks without seeing something new that radically changes.”

Someone who claims to “eat, breathe and sleep” e-books, he is constantly researching trends related to the medium, some of which suggests declines and some of which suggest increases in interest.

A few groups he mentioned who really benefit from them are students and the elderly.

For older people, who might be hesitant to trade in old paperbacks, part of the appeal of e-readers is that font size and contrast are adjustable, and the devices themselves are lightweight.

But, Weaver said, “the biggest difference between print books and e-books is what we have access to.”

One solution he mentioned would be if publishers offered digital copies with the traditional print product, but this is just an idea he has – an idea he hopes will materialize.

An interesting side effect of digital books is what role libraries will play in the future. Both Weaver and Worthington say they will be an important public gathering place, as they always have been. But that will become increasingly valuable, because “you can check out a book at three in the morning if you want,” Weaver said.

Yes, it’s convenient, but it eliminates the need to go to the library.

She continued, “You don’t have to worry about taking them back; they just return themselves.”

Westlake Porter has large meeting rooms available for public use, and this is a draw that has nothing to do with renting materials. Services such as these will likely become just as important to libraries as the products they provide.

And as far as renting e-books goes, Worthington mentioned that with the digital product, publishers have more control over who purchases it – unlike the print product, which can be purchased wholesale.

“This petition is out to make sure libraries have a voice in how we have access to this,” Weaver said.

 

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