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Digital Content and Smart Librarians
November 17, 2011 - 9:25pm

My ability to make strong arguments about how our academic libraries should navigate the new ecosystem of digital books (e-books & audiobooks) seems to be inversely related to the amount of time I spend engaging the library community on these issues. The more I learn, the more complex and difficult I realize this issue to be. Simple declarations about the desirability of our libraries mimicking Amazon and providing every book in paper, e-paper and audio (when available …. audiobooks are unfortunately less likely to be produced) might be appealing, but may ultimately be unproductive. 

Where I enter the digital book debate is as a consumer of digital books. My desire for my library to give me the same options in books that I pay Amazon for has very little to do with academic need. Sure, the books I read inform my thinking about the intersection of education and technology, and I think help me do my job better, but I am not reading them for scholarly purposes. (Unless you count reviewing books in this blog as a scholarly activity …. maybe an open question?)   What I'd really like is to have access to digital books as a benefit of working in an academic setting, much like having access to (almost every) paper book (through holdings and interlibrary loan) has always been a benefit of the academic life.

In a post yesterday, I tried to frame this desire for digital books within the context of a new digital content divide. My argument was basically that with books, the medium is emerging as a significant part of the message, and that the rise of digital books is subverting the traditional egalitarian and leveling function of libraries. The person who can afford the e-book or the audiobook has access to a better reading experience, as that person can read on multiple devices (e-book reader, phones) and while multi-tasking (audiobooks). Since I can afford digital books I can read more books, the playing field is not level.  My solution, give the libraries more money.

But even a day later this argument seems simplistic and naive. As "laurabrarian" points out in a comment:

"Sure, give us more money, especially if you're rich enough! But we still will have to make difficult decisions about format.  ….[E]books and audiobooks often cost *more* to libraries than to individual consumers -- because, of course, we will let multiple users use them. The same audiobook of "Ready Player One" that you bought from Audible for $10 would cost me $70 to $100 to buy for the library as a downloadable file. Whereas I spent about the same amount on the print copy as it's listed for sale on Amazon -- and it will be shared with many more people for that same price.

And as Barbara Fister writes (also in a comment):

"Giving more money to libraries without addressing the inequalities and (deliberate) inefficiencies won't fix anything; it will just mean that we're investing more in a system that thrives on a consumer model that disables capabilities to share."

(note: I hope you go and read the full comments … as I'm only sampling what these two librarians and other people wrote. I also recommend that you go and read Laura Braunstein's piece "We Don't Read That Way" on the ACRLog).

It seems to me that the conflicted and problematic space of digital books and the library underscores the central role that academic librarians will play in determining the relationship of academe to the new digital economy. As the challenge of balancing demands for digital resources with incompatible and academic un-friendly business models grows, the role of the academic librarian as navigator and will also increase. There is simply no way to make every stakeholder and patron happy, and easy answers (such as throwing more money at digital resources) might make some borrowers happy (like me) in the short run, but may be absolutely the wrong thing to do in meeting the larger mission and goals of the academic library and the institution.  

The success that our academic libraries will have in navigating this new digital book ecosystem will depend on the smarts and effectiveness of our librarians.   They are the most valuable part of this equation. 

How can us non-librarians be a constructive partner in your work around digital books?

What is the best way for the non-librarian specialist to stay informed and knowledgeable about your efforts?

How can we keep this conversation going as a positive and open dialogue across the library and non-library worlds?

 

 

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