Library On/Library Off

Nicolibrarian explores the secret life of information

What is a library without books? A true story in two acts.

with 2 comments

ACT ONE – Wherein the merits of book-less libraries are discussed

Scene: apartment occupied by two grad students; living room in mild, nearing-end-of-semester disarray. It is late, dark outside. The weather is cold and rainy, and a cat purrs in the corner. LIS Grad Student lounges on a couch, reading from a laptop. Enter Fine Art Grad Student, tired, smelling of lithography, but only slightly inky.

LIS student: “Oh, hey. I just read about a high school Library in Massachusetts that got rid of all its books.”

Fine Arts student, indignant: “What the hell? I think that’s wrong.”

LS: “Oh yeah? Why’s that?”

FAS: “Well, libraries are supposed to be full of books, right? I mean, what is this school doing in the library if not reading?”

LS: “They’ve got meeting spaces, a cafe, and three flat screen TVs. Squishy chairs, and the students all get laptops upon entering school. Oh, and they circulate e-reader devices, too. Obviously a private school.”

FAS: “Doesn’t sound like my high school…come to think of it, I don’t even remember if my high school had a library. Still, why even bother to call it a library? What do you think – is a library a library without books?”

LS: “Well, I know it would probably get my ALA card revoked, but I don’t have such a strong, negative reaction to it. I mean, look at use. What good is a library if nobody uses it? You don’t even remember yours. I know my high school had a library, but I was only ever in it to sit and talk with my friends; what studying I did away from home was at the public library. And not like the school library was great – it was tiny and the books all seemed really old and out of date. And as a library worker, I know school libraries often only have a handful of staff, one or two librarians, maybe – and it must be an insane amount of work to purchase, shelve, manage circulation – not to mention being an effective instructional partner for teachers, working with IT, managing database subscriptions, making the case to your administration for your existence, you know… ”

FAS: “But what about kids who don’t learn well from e-reading? I hate reading on my computer.”

LS: “Sure. Just because the library doesn’t have books doesn’t mean kids won’t still read them, and have to read them.  Our books for English class were always kept by the English teacher, anyway…they weren’t even run through the library as far as I know. In fact, when we had textbooks that were given to us for a class, it was always the teacher who checked them out to us, and they didn’t have library call numbers on them. Not to mention I had to buy my books myself for my AP classes.”

FAS: “Don’t kids need a quiet place to study?”

LS: “But during the school day when the school is open, how much time are you even open to study? Aren’t most kids by-and-large in class? And do you need books surrounding you to study? What good is a library at providing study space if it isn’t open after school building hours anyway?”

FAS: “Good points. And I guess if the point is to get kids into the library, it might make more sense to make it appealing…”

LS: “And I see that, you know, the user isn’t always right. I mean, we could get kids into libraries by providing them beer and video games, but it’s not always in their best interests to just give them what they want. And yet it’s not like this new kind of library isn’t supporting learning –  it sounds like college to me, a little – you know, like a dorm lounge or something. You have groups meeting for classes, kids reading, kids watching TV, and someone snoring in the corner.”

FAS: “Yeah…but even in college when you had the lounge, there was still a big quiet library to go hide in and get your work done.”

LS: “True. Good point.”


ACT TWO, Wherein the author abandons the dialog and gets back to normal blogging voice

I had the above conversation (more or less) with my husband the other night after reading and thinking about e-books, libraries without books,Barnes&Noble’s provision of free e-books within their stores on Nook readers (of course), and privacy issues surrounding e-books. It all got me wondering if e-books are disruptive to libraries, in the sense of disruptive innovations (see both Clay Christensen and Innovation Zen for more on this concept).

If we consider that disruptive innovations take two forms, per Innovation Zen:

“A sustaining innovation hardly results in the downfall of established companies because it improves the performance of existing products along the dimensions that mainstream customers value.

Disruptive innovation, on the other hand, will often have characteristics that traditional customer segments may not want, at least initially. Such innovations will appear as cheaper, simpler and even with inferior quality if compared to existing products, but some marginal or new segment will value it.”

I’ll start off with a few disclaimers, because I believe Christensen’s original theory has a lot to do with economics, and the tangle of libraries and economics is messy: publisher sells to library, library “sells” to an administration/government (insofar as it is funded by the administration of a college, or a government, in the case of public libraries), and yet libraries also “sell” themselves to their patrons. (This is a slippery mess for traditional economic theory, and don’t get me started on issues of library administration, accountability, demonstrating value, marketing…)

Disclaimers aside, when it comes to the library – patron relationship, or even the book – reader relationship, e-books may be considered sustaining innovations in that they add value (you can now read your book without visiting the library – simply download it! You can also now “search” your book in a digital way. AND you can get a whole lot of books on your e-reader, an added value in that you’re not lugging physical copies around). Is this a stretch when it comes to this being “along the dimensions mainstream customers value” – perhaps. I believe the above argument makes sense, but find the “added value” a stretch – is an e-book an added value or an entirely new product? I am inclined to say they are indeed new products- and if they are, then they could fall more soundly in the area of being a disruptive innovation.

E-books look like disruptive innovations in that they (especially initially, in the last 10 – 15 years) have not been something the patron has, by and large, wanted. Surely e-books appear inferior – even with all the innovations of the Kindle and now iPad, issues of readability, ability to annotate (see the Princeton study on e-readers in the college classroom), and even the issue of comfortability (feel of books, ability to flip through them, books-as-treasured-objects, books as scholarly output in the Humanities, et al). And yet is demand beginning to grow and change? The growth of the e-reader market may seem to indicate yes. And to continue following the above description, e-books would indeed (at least appear) cheaper, simpler, and of inferior quality; though for libraries, e-books are not per se cheaper nor simpler given our current systems (i.e. no “First Sale” with e-books, and libraries often have to rely on vendors to deliver e-book content.) To finish going through the definition of disruptive innovation, “some marginal or new segment will value” e-books – that marginal and new segment being those who use e-book readers, those who are affluent enough to have such technologies at hand, and even, some might say, tech-forward folks looking to explore the new ways of reading and interacting with information.

So what? What do we do if e-books are disruptive technologies for the printed book, and therefore for the library? Why does this matter?

  1. First and foremost, I say librarians, readers, and book-lovers ought not panic. If e-books can expand access to information, help make reading easier or more appealing, and potentially save books from the (often more FUD than truth) assertions that books are less and less popular and that they can only be preserved digitally, hooray! Then we should embrace e-books and explore their possibilities. AND, we can relax a little – the rise of the e-book does not necessarily mean the disappearance forever of the printed book.
  2. This matters for librarians and consumers because we want to keep books and their content affordable and as accessible as possible. If we truly believe in e-books as disruptors, then we need to be fighting like hell for accessibility and funding so that the benefits of “First Sale” are not lost to history. What happens to ILL in a world of e-books? How do libraries begin to circulate e-book readers? Should libraries have a hand in, or even start developing our own readers? Should libraries be in the business of publishing with more earnestness, if the Serials Crisis will spill over into an E-books Crisis?

What do you think? How could e-books as disruptors affect libraries, books, reading, publishing, and the future?


Written by nicolibrarian

April 26, 2010 at 7:09 am

2 Responses

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  1. Fascinating reading, librarygrrl.

    I too am very interested to see what happens with ebooks and libraries over the next few years. I for one would miss physical books, but I’m willing to surrender some of the features (touch, smell, lack of batteries) for instantaneous access to more books.
    What worries me, however is DRM and the lack of standardization between e-readers. If there were an open and secure standard for books that would work on a commodity e-reader, I’d be less fearful.
    The bad behavior of Amazon automagically rescinding _1984_ from everyone’s Kindles is a little shocking and scary as well. An open standard that explicitly denied such naughty dealings would also be more comforting. If the power rests in the hands of the publishing companies past the first sale, this technology is unacceptable for libraries.
    As for how to get e-readers into the hands of the masses, I they need to be much, much affordable and commodity items. It’s a classic chicken-egg problem. All sorts of companies need to be in the business to drive down the price and provide cheap e-readers, but before that happens, there needs to be a critical mass of people using e-readers. Commodity readers need to hit a sweet spot of $50-$100 for that to happen. At that price point, perhaps an open format will emerge and become standard much like mp3 is today.
    Still at $50-$100 per book, libraries will probably not be able to afford lending out readers. Perhaps they can work on a deposit scheme over a long (5-10 year) transition period where users can check out a reader for several weeks or months at a time.
    How the libraires are going to get anywhere in bargaining with the publishing houses is beyond me. The DRM battle, at least in court, appears to be favoring the publishers more and more. How the libraries will ever convince the publishers that lending is a noble and necessary part of our society is beyond me. Do you have any smart ideas?


    April 27, 2010 at 1:37 pm

  2. When libraries consider adopting eBooks as a new format, we need to consider access as a major deciding factor. When the Cushing Academy library replaced its entire print collection with 18 Kindles (, it created a situation where that collection could only serve 18 patrons at a time. They also locked themselves into a specific eReader notorious for consumer rights problems. Last year, Amazon remotely deleted copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from Kindles across the world, without consent of the customers ( We create a situation in which we surrender direct control over our collections to outside corporate interests, who may not share – or even fully understand – our interests.

    But I set consumer rights issues aside – with great reluctance. What would incorporating (or completely switching to) eBooks and electronic resources mean to patrons? It will have its costs and benefits. I want to spend a moment comparing the concept of eBooks to our current approach to electronic serials subscriptions, to see if we can extract some wisdom from that.

    “In the library with a lead pipe” ( is an excellent blog that challenges so many current assumptions about libraries. Whether or not you ultimately agree with them, it’s still a valuable read. They posted an article about serials subscriptions, asking the question about if it’s really all that much cheaper to switch to electronic access. Their answer: not as much as one would hope ( There is much to learn from their post, but I do confess that my transitional argument from electronic serials to electronic monographs is not as smooth as I would hope for it to be.

    What you’ve said about adding value rings true, and the serials article seems to agree with this. The cost associated with preservation issues must be weighed against the value gained when patrons can suddenly access resources 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. Students can conduct research even when the library doors are closed. Apply that same level of access to eBooks, and patrons suddenly have round-the-clock access to an amazing literary world never before imaginable. Add to that subscription access to music, TV shows and movies. Simply amazing, right? (Let us momentarily suspend all mention of copyright law. It is relevant, but not so relevant to my point).

    If eBooks are to enhance the value of our collections, it must be accessible to as wide of a base of patrons as possible. The simple argument can be made that 10,000 books on the shelf can be accessed by 10,000 simultaneous patrons. One eBook reader with 10,000 books on it can only be accessed by one patron at a time. Immediately, the Kindle seems less appealing, since Kindle books are directly tied to the device.

    If we have a database which allows patrons to download titles to desktop computers, laptop computers, or eBook readers, then we are no longer tied down to a particular device. Additionally, we gain that coveted 24-hour access. But then, we have to jump through hoops to finally get the book we want. Many eBook vendors require that patrons install proprietary software before using said content, and some will fail to support specific electronic devices in their subscription model. iPod and Zune owners historically have trouble accessing audio books online, for example.

    If we expect more patrons to adopt library eBook services, we must ensure that it remains easy to use. It needs to be at least as easy as it would be to pick up a print book off the shelf. They need to provide access to the same number of concurrent users as our print collections do. We also need to evaluate eBook usage to ensure that we fund a service that patrons actually use. If it fails to catch on, we must explore possible reasons for that. If it does catch on, then we must recognize that improved access to literature represents added value in itself.

    I do advocate that we should fight for long-term preservation. On the other hand, our first priority should be to get the material into the hands of patrons. If nobody actually uses the resources which we provide, then our collection has no value whatsoever.

    Next episode: patron privacy rights, consumer rights, preservation.


    April 27, 2010 at 8:01 pm

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