Arguably, part of the problem that public libraries have faced in getting their e-lending role recognised is down to two key things. Firstly, although there are many glorious exceptions to this, maybe not all those in libraryland are as good as they might be in articulating what value they can bring to the e-book marketplace that is in commercial partners’ best interests. I am talking here not of selling out or of commercial sidelines but of the way our core service values may actually bring everyone significant benefits. Secondly, maybe the wider book world that has supported public libraries so well over the years has done so because libraries have been deemed to be ‘a good thing’ generally but in a way which, when trends in reading and publishing are hitting the bottom line, mean that vague good will is in danger of evaporating.
Maybe this may become less of a problem now that Sieghart has reported and made strong recommendations for an e-lending future, but even there the need for more research is acknowledged. Part of the need here will be to understand the growing and changing e-book market and elucidate that e-reading customers are indeed e-book purchasers as well. More importantly, however, it would be good if we could both explore and articulate the benefits public libraries bring to a digital context. Changing hearts and minds would then bring longer-term benefits since it would then be a question of partnership working and not a matter of libraries working on the margins or waiting for crumbs from the rich man’s table.
No doubt others can, and maybe already have (Christopher Platt, for example), done a better job than I can of articulating the worth of public libraries in an e-book context. But to get a debate going, the following values may give us a starting point to base the public library contribution on:
- Public libraries have a key role in widening access to e-books, reaching out to all sections of local communities including those that cannot access printed material easily or can only access services remotely. As with printed material, our role is to provide access for all and to ensure that e-books are not limited to those who can afford to purchase them or the latest piece of ‘kit’.
- The library role to promote IT literacy is similarly important to society as a whole and broadens the base of the digital marketplace. This role includes providing access to the internet, providing training and support for those with and without IT experience, as well as providing a wide range of information in the form of e-resources.
- Public libraries encourage wider, risk-free reading and, by supporting reader development through signposting good reads and supporting reading groups, promote interaction between readers, authors and publishers.
- The visibility and accessibility of free e-book services provide a shop window and entry point to the wider book world for all library customers. This presence is important at a time when recession and digital marketplace changes may affect how the commercial sector operates.
- Public Libraries have a proven track record in effective partnership working and will have an important contribution to make in promoting a healthy marketplace with access for all. Public libraries working with publishers, booksellers and authors can develop the e-book marketplace for mutual benefit.
Hampshire Library Service