Not long after the explosion of the internet, people began predicting the end of libraries. “Why do we need libraries anymore?” they’d ask. “All the information is out there, on the internet. Soon we won’t have any libraries.” Along with the idea of the paperless office, this seems to be one of those popular certainties that somehow didn’t happen.
Almost two decades on and libraries are still as much a part of society as ever, and librarians just as relevant. We do the same thing we have always done (arrange, describe and provide access to information), just in a different way. So when I hear people predicting that ebooks will spell the end not only of print books, but to some extent the traditional publishing industry, I have my doubts.
I should also explain something about myself – I am coming to this Ebook Debate wearing two hats. One is the hat of Academic Librarian, whose job it is to catalogue new ebook purchases for the library, and the other is Lu Rees Archives Management Committee Member. The Lu Rees Archives of Australian Children’s Literature is a research collection for all aspects of Australian children’s literature.
This year we begin a project to start archiving ebooks as well as print books. From an academic librarian’s point of view, the road to ebook adoption has not been a smooth one. The tussle between libraries wanting to provide online access to their patrons and publishers wanting to sell as many copies of their book as possible has been going on for the last few years and will probably continue a few years more.
This will be especially true in the case of academic textbooks and libraries, as publishers have traditionally sold hundreds of print copies to students. If academic libraries were suddenly able to provide unlimited online access to a textbook electronically, for the price of a print copy, publishers would be very soon in dire financial straits. Libraries cannot afford to pay a lot of money for ebooks, and publishers cannot afford to sell them to libraries without limits for a similar price to the print copy. So what is the answer? Severely limited loan periods? A subscription based model, rather than an outright purchase? Digital Rights Management (DRM) that restricts the number of concurrent users or the number of loans allowed on one book? Until we find a solution that everyone is happy with, most publishers will not be releasing their textbooks electronically to libraries. Ebook vendors are currently negotiating arrangements between libraries and publishers for both general academic works and textbooks, and various models are being trialled. There is still a ways to go before everyone is comfortable with ebooks, however, and most likely even longer for etextbooks. Currently the total demise of the print book is not in sight.
Though perhaps it will be easier for an archive of children’s literature? In an article in Publisher’s Weekly online industry news, author Judith Rosen reported on some statistics from a recent Bowker survey. She says “While e-books accounted for 24% of books purchased between April 2011 and 2012, e-book sales for kids up to age 12 is considerably smaller, closer to 5%. It is a different story for YA, now at 14%.” She continues, “Parents, too, still prefer to read to their children from a physical book. On average only 5.6% of the books parents read to kids up to age six are digital.” You can read the full article here: Kids’ Books in the Digital Age.
We can see that people seem to prefer picture books in print. Perhaps their disappearance in favour of ebooks won’t happen in the near future either. So. It seems to me that although ebooks are becoming more and more popular, it will be quite a number of years yet before they totally replace print books, if they ever do. What do you think? Is the prediction that ebooks will make print books obsolete a likely one, or will it be more like the paperless office and the end of libraries? Are the doomsayers correct in thinking that this will be end of the publishing industry as we know it? Is there a solution for ebooks in libraries that everyone can be happy with?
Switching hats now, some of you may be aware of the requirement of Legal Deposit. The National Library of Australia (NLA) describes it like this: “Legal Deposit is a requirement under the Copyright Act 1968 for publishers and self publishing authors to deposit a copy of any print work published in Australia with the National Library and when applicable, the deposit libraries in your home state. Legal Deposit ensures that Australian publications are preserved for use now and in the future.”
In recent times, the NLA has been campaigning to have the terms of Legal Deposit changed to include electronic materials. The submission date has closed, but you can read more about it here: Extending Legal Deposit. This would mean (among other things) that publishers of Australian materials would include their ebooks as well as the print books in their legal deposit to the NLA.
It would also mean that the NLA would have to store, preserve and provide access to those ebooks into the future. There has been plenty written on the subject of digital preservation and its challenges, so I shan’t go in to that now (If you’re interested, this is a great article, despite its age: Ensuring the Longevity of Digital Information).
I use the NLA example to demonstrate how ebooks are changing the game for libraries and archives in ways other than purchasing and providing access.
At the Lu Rees Archives (LRA) we are going to follow the example of the NLA and begin asking for ebooks from publishers so that we can preserve them and provide access to future generations of researchers.
Of course, we don’t have the Legal Deposit legislation to claim with, but Australian publishers have always been very generous in their support of the LRA, and we hope this will continue when it comes to donating their ebooks. It will be up to us then to preserve these ebooks through changing technology, file formats and media, to ensure that researchers a hundred years from now can read them too.