What is a library without books? A true story in two acts.
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.
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 And not like the school library was great – it was tiny and the books all seemed really old and out of date.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?
- 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.
- 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?