Ebooks and Libraries

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.

I have never met Rebecca Kemble face to face, but in emails she is charming and very much engaged in the eBook revolution. As the Cataloguing, Theses and E-Records Coordinator at the University of Canberra Library, she has the right credentials, and these things alone would have made her a perfect candidate for this forum.

But she as a member of the Lu Rees Archives of Australian Children’s Literature Management Committee, which is constantly striving to find better ways to keep a record of the work of our creators, she is also on the frontline of library defence in a world that all to often will cut costs and funding for all the wrong reasons.

And as the Immediate Past President of The Children’s Book Council of Australia, ACT Branch, she is well qualified to engage in any debate about books and book forms.I was only glad I was not asking her to write something for me last year, because THAT is a huge job all on its own.

18 Responses

    1. Deb says:

      Hi Rebecca, your post has given me a lot to think about. I know that the office I volunteer in is definitely full of paper and I still love trawling through the shelves of my library. I guess this debate has been going on for a lot longer than I realised.

      While I can’t see the end of paper books happening any time soon, or any time period, It is great to know that there will always be access to all kinds of texts in all kinds of formats. Kind of reminds me of the hidden library in The Farseekers. Perhaps that library is the NLA of the future, (theories running through my head here).

      I think publishers will need to embrace the e-Volution sooner rather than later, but while there is a market for paper books, I think, and hope, that they will continue to produce them as well as digital formats.

      Your mention of the changing technology in the future is interesting. Will the various publishers come to a consensus on a single format do you think (I’m thinking VHS versus Beta here, and showing my age) or will there be more and more coming out to lock a reader into buying only from one? I know that Greylands is out in several formats, but is this the case for all e-books? Will it be in the future?

      Thank you for an informative post.

    2. Rebecca Kemble says:

      Hi Deb, thanks for your thoughtful reply! I must confess that I am very much pro-print book in some ways, as I love books as physical objects, some of them are very beautful, and I am one of those people who loves the smell of books! So although I can see the practicality of ebooks, and I read them sometimes on my phone, I also hope that print books will never entirely disappear.

      As to whether publishers will embrace a single format – we can only hope! The EPUB format has been lauded as the new standard in ebook formats, and certainly it has a lot of advantages, especially over PDF. The major advantages of EPUB is that it has a lot of accessibilty functions for readers with a text disability, and the books can automatically resize to fit different screens, e.g. phone or ipad. But as long as the Kindle is so popular, we will probably still have a lot of books available in the Kindle format too.

      • I doubt we are going to see a single eBook format any time soon. While there is a standard, the reality is the major eBook retailers dont really subscribe to it, and even those that do break away from it as the technology races ahead.
        In Australia, Apple iBooks are the only realistic option for fixed-layout. Amazon have KF8, but it doesn’t even really support transparent PNGs at the moment (although there is some kind of Amazon hack in the works that makes transparent areas white instead of the current black). Nook have fixed layout for children’s books. But both the Fire and Nook aren’t really available in Australia yet.
        Apple also have two completely different fixed layout options – iBooks Author (completely proprietary file format) and fixed layout ePub3 (including read aloud and some interactive options). I won’t go on about all the differences between all the file formats, readers and ebookstores… All that to say, I don’t think we are going to see DRM eBooks in a standard format while the eBook retailers control the reading software and hardware.

      • Rebecca Kemble says:

        Hi Liam,
        I agree, the single format for ebooks is certainly a long way off, if ever possible! As you say, ebook vendors producing proprietary software/hardware are big challenges to that.
        And for what it’s worth, the majority of ebooks my library purchases from ebook aggregators are in HTML and PDF, with only a few in EPUB. We don’t have any available in iBooks or Kindle, as these are aimed at the individual purchaser, rather than a library where many people on many devices will have to use it.

    3. Well it is good to read a piece that is from someone on both sides of the fence. Although it seems to me the “paperless office” is in fact coming true. Perhaps for two main reasons, one is economics/profit and two is distribution. You can now elect to pay automatically or manually on line and your payment/transaction is viewable mostly for the period of time required by the Australian Taxation Office. Utilities, shopping, communications, banking are probably the most common household use of the paperless office. Commercial use is growing as invoicing, statements, advertising and other documents become paperless and instead become attachments to emails or HTML emails.

      The turning point was the means – the computer, and it depended on the take up rate since 1982 by a mass large enough to make it worthwhile and that the price of the hardware and the means of distribution came within reach of the majority of the people.

      So critical mass seems to be an element in play. With ePUB the critical mass has not yet been reached, when it does the eDevice may become the normal method by which to read information. The pricing of the eBook should in the case of technical/reference books reflect not the medium but the intellectual content. The case for fiction also holds true – you are paying for the creative process.

      Now for one of those foolish predicting the future comments – in the future as paper books become less available the cost of an eBook will rise.

      PS: As a small specialist publisher I would prefer a cloud method of eBook storage and for libraries to use a pay by use model.

      • Rebecca Kemble says:

        Hi Peter,
        Thanks! I take it you mean by ‘both sides of the fence’ to be the point of view of both libraries and publishers? I think it’s important to hear from both sides as both have equally valid points of view, and it often seems to me that publishers are going to be the most affected by the ebook phenomenon, as their entire business model is geared to the production and distribution of print objects. Changing the industry so drastically is going to be a diffuclt thing, and finding a new business model that works for epublishing will be no mean feat.

        Perhaps we will eventually come to the paperless office – I like to hope so. When we have a standard for electronic signatures that is acceptable everywhere, we will be very close! Now if I can just get everyone out of the habit of printing emails and storing them in filing cabinets…!

      • Perhaps we will see publishing go back to being a cottage industry 🙂

      • Rebecca Kemble says:

        Maybe! It will certainly be easier for smaller publishers to change and adapt quickly to the new technologies I think 🙂

    4. Rebecca, I’ve been thinking about your post and the future of print books and libraries.

      I used to love libraries as a kid, but that was pre-internet. Sad to say, but I can’t actually remember the last time I went to a library. Maybe I can afford to buy eBooks now and don’t need to borrow them any more? Or maybe I’ve simply found another way to access information that I used to go to a library for?

      I do love old books, and think there will always be a place for State Libraries full of old historical works and printed materials, but they will become more like museums. Inevitably, local libraries will become data access points, community gathering spaces and information portals. I’m sure there will be a place for printed children’s books for some time. However, as the printed publishing industry gradually adapts to digital (or fades away) and more readers take up electronic devices, it will not make financial sense to keep printing most books. We’ve already seen many printed books become redundant (Melways?) or uneconomical to produce (Encyclopaedias?).

      I feel like this debate about paper books is largely sentimental and mostly confined to older generations who grew up with paper books, and those who have vested interests in maintaining the printed book industry. I understand that many people love printed books – readers, authors, teachers and librarians. I’m just not sure that they are the majority any more, or at least I’m pretty sure they won’t be in the future.

      p.s. I think Konrath’s take on the potential of indie authors to take advantage of this situation is interesting – http://jakonrath.blogspot.com.au/2012/07/zero-sum.html

      • Rebecca Kemble says:

        Hi Liam,
        I think you’re right about libraries – already we are seeing the shift away from the idea that libraries are “a building to store books in” and towards libraries as “community space”. With the take up of electronic journals, ebooks, and audiobooks being online rather than on CD on the library shelves, when libraries weed their print collections they end up with a lot more space as it isn’t being replaced with new print items. This means there is more space for people and activities. In my library (a university library) it means we have more space for group study, computers (to access the library’s online content among other things), training rooms, after hours spaces, etc. Public libraries are embracing this change too – a lot have been redesigned to be a more interactive, community oriented space. So perhaps we will end up with a few “preservation” libraries who store historical paper books (as you say, the National and State libraries spring to mind) and other libraries will become more of a learning/sharing/meeting place.

        I also agree that a lot of the debate about whether to use ebooks or paper books is based in sentiment rather than practicality. And I agree that a lot of it seems to be coming from the baby boomers! (Apologies to the boomers :-))But although I’m a Gen Y, and I read ebooks on my phone (and find it extremely convenient), I have to admit to being sentimental about print books. But only the nice ones 🙂

    5. Liam whether its ePUB 2.0; 3.0; 3.0 experimental or mobi, it doesn’t matter. History has shown us that propriety files either become obsolete or another program can open it and then this leads to market domination. There was a time with graphics files you would need a file convertor to use a variety of formats in the one program.

      Tablets are currently the fastest growing/selling devices and all of the big players are manufacturing them so that they can take a limited range of formats and not all of the big players are remotely interested in locking their tablet to a proprietary format. So logically the next step would be format convertor program. But it may not be, it may jump straight to a universal format and it seems to me that format will be developed by Adobe.

      InDesign CS6 has now developed digital publishing further in their latest version of the software. Some are just small things like coloured backgrounds to a text frame. You no longer have to hack the CSS to achieve the look. As with their success and domination in producing PDF so it seems they will develop a universal standard for HTML style eBooks.

      This will leave the likes of Amazon and Apple standing out in the cold unless they adapt to the universal format.

      • Peter, I hope you’re right about a universal eBook format but I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon. As long as people buy hardware from Apple and Amazon and developers continue to produce software for their stores I don’t see how they would be left out in the cold if Adobe developed a universal standard for HTML style eBooks? They could simply ignore it.

        ePub is already the universal format for eBooks, but you’re better off producing an Apple ePub or Amazon mobi file if you want to sell your eBooks. You can submit a pretty standard ePub file to Apple, but you’re much more likely to get Apple promotion of it if you use some of the latest features available from iBooks Author or their fixed layout ePub formats.

        I was a big fan of web apps a few years ago when there was a similar debate about mobile apps becoming a universal format. This hasn’t happened though, if anything it’s the opposite. Web apps and cross-platform apps might be good for free apps, but if you want to use the newest features of iOS or Android then you need to code natively. Again, Apple are more likely to feature apps that use the latest APIs and new features of the latest iPhone or iPad. Developers go where they can make a living selling apps, and that is mostly iOS at the moment. Of course, there are a lot third party platforms for producing apps then converting them to iOS, Android, Nook etc., but none of them are capable of producing the same full-featured apps as coding natively.

        While Adobe are introducing some great tools (DPS, PhoneGap, CS6 suite), they produce files that often need further work before being submitted. While DPS is a good solution for Newsstand magazine apps, it is very expensive for authors or small developers.

        While I don’t think we are going to see Apple or Amazon adapting to a universal format any time soon, I am hopeful that there will be a much easier way to create and convert HTML files into the various proprietary eBook formats. I agree that Adobe are most likely to come up with the best solution.

    6. Yes Liam Amazon and Apple won’t surrender without a fight. That is why I think the conversion file format program may still be needed. The direct comparison as of today is video format converters where you take your master file and produce a wide variety of formats each with its multitude of variants for a wide range of devices.

      • Maybe the example of the In Design plug ins that export layouts as apps or newsstand magazines suggest we might see something similar for fixed layout eBooks soon? It’s a bit of a dog’s breakfast at the moment. Technically you can export eBooks out of In Design, but few designers style their files up for export and it’s quite time consuming to rebuild the styles afterwards.

    7. Rebecca, you may be interested to know that in the Book Industry Collaboration Council(of which I’m a member) questions to do with libraries, authors, publishers and e-books are being thoroughly discussed. Hopefully we can come up with some workable solutions to problems and provide new opportunities for us all in the industry to work together to provide great outcomes for both creators and readers.

      • Rebecca Kemble says:

        Hi Sophie, I am interested to know that, thank you! I think that will be the way forward – when all parties can openly communicate to find a solution that will work for everyone.

    8. Richard Harland says:

      Hi Rebecca! I don’t know what the current state of play is, but there’s been a huge kerfuffle in the US over public libraries loaning out e-books. The problem is as you state it – if anyone can download an e-book for free from a library – and online, without even visiting the library, why would anyone ever pay for a print or e-copy? I have to admit, I’m thankful that my US publisher, Simon & Schuster, refuses to sell digital books to libraries.

      Really, e-transmission ought to bring about a situation where the unit cost of a book could be brought down very low indeed. $20-30 for a paperback is expensive, and an e-book via Amazon or such isn’t much cheaper. But if you could get e-books for $2 or $3 a copy, would anyone baulk at that? I hardly think about the cost of an interstate phone call or a blank CD or the $1 to pay when I order a library book that has to be brought across from another library. (I think it’s about $1).

      Seems to me we’re in the Gutenberg phase of the e-book revolution – new technology but old way of thinking. From what I’ve heard, Gutenberg imitated the heavy look of old manuscript books, and his print books were cheaper but not cheap. The second revolution came about fifty years later when a Venetian printer/publisher called Manutius brought out books in mass quantities, really cheap and really readable. I look forward to the e-day!

      • Rebecca Kemble says:

        Hi Richard,
        Thanks for your response! I’ve been reading recent articles about ebook lending in public libraries, and actually it’s beginning to show that it has a posititve effect on sales of ebooks. People who discover an author through ebook lending in their local library, and want to read more of their books, are very likely to then purchase their other books as ebooks and read them. Of course, more research is needed, but this seems a positive indication that ebook lending won’t be the death of ebook sales. Rather, it seems to boost them!

        There is definitely a push to sell ebooks very cheaply. I have been reading about self-published ebook authors who claim that selling their ebook for only a couple of dollars boosts their sales and thus their exposure to the reading public. Amazon seems to be determined to be the cheapest place to buy ebooks, and from what I hear are pushing authors and publishers to make their ebooks available for the least amount possible. Certainly their are ebooks you can buy VERY cheaply, and this does seem to encourage people to buy more and read more. What the long term effects of this will be for authors and publishers, of course only time will tell…

        Haha! Yes we are definitely in the Gutenberg phase of the ebook revolution, I couldn’t agree more. (And I love your analogy!) It’s true, we have all this technology, but our heads are still stuck in a print book place. We can only speculate as to what the book publishing industry will look like in 50 years time. Should be an interesting journey getting there though!