The future will judge academic librarians by how well they were able to build coalitions across institutions and negotiate with publishers to bring digital books into a co-equal status with physical books.
This is a hard problem to solve, but leaders will be judged on how well they solve the hard ones.
The NYTimes recently ran an article "Libraries and Readers Wade Into Digital Lending" that highlights many of the difficulties and opportunities that library leadership will encounter.
The Times reports that while digital books (e-books and audio books) still make up a small portion of library collections that the demand for this format is growing rapidly. For instance, NetLibrary (a division of the non-profit OCLC) has seen the circulation of audio and e-books grow 21 percent in the past year.
Currently, academic libraries do not have a good model to offer students and faculty the full universe audio and e-books on multiple platforms. Ideally, academic libraries would be able to loan audio and e-books in the same way they do paper copies. If the digital book is not available in the collection then an inter-library loan like service would be provided.
Digital books would be priced to libraries at the same rate they are on consumer sites - which translates into about $10 a book. If an academic library could basically act like an individual on the Amazon properties (Kindle and Audible sites), and then loan the purchased book out to patrons like a physical book - then the world of digital library books will greatly open up.
Unfortunately, I fear that publishers and companies like Amazon (and whoever else emerges in this space) will make the same mistake as the record companies and choose to lock down their digital book content. This would be a terrible mistake, as the publishing and book-seller industry has an opportunity to turn the next generation into a generation of readers.
Publishers, book sellers, and the makers of reading devices should be doing everything they possibly can to make their digital books available to academic library users. College students will only develop the habit of reading if they can read on the devices that they want to use. If books are not available in digital format, as e-books and audio books, then they look at other things on their screens and listen to other things on their iPods.
College library digital book readers will become tomorrows digital book buyers. It is in the self-interest of all of us to figure out how to bring digital books to parity with physical books in our college libraries. Who will step-up to provide the leadership to make this happen?