Libraries, the digital squeeze and ebooks
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Cross-sector survey of libraries in the US

Writing in Information Today, Barbara Brynko analyses the findings of a new report by Joseph McKendrick.  The Digital Squeeze: Libraries at the Crossroads surveyed 730 public, academic, special, education, and government libraries in the US.  Key findings include:

Funding

Library budgets are increasing but not enough to fulfil all customer demands for advanced technology and information resources.   Libraries are cutting back on print to boost their electronic collections, although print spending is still outstripping digital purchasing.  Larger libraries are joining ebook consortiums but smaller libraries in particular are being squeezed.  Academic, corporate and special libraries are finding it harder to increase their funding than public libraries.  When faced with trimming budgets, libraries begin with their staff costs and book acquisitions, followed by the purchase of serials and periodicals.   Any extra funds are going into boosting digital collections and services.

Social tools and technology

Librarians report a levelling off in the use of Facebook and LinkedIn to connect with customers and the use of wikis and blogs is declining.  However, more of them are using collaborative tools including the sharing of web pages, subject guides, and the use of document-sharing, photo and video sharing web apps.

Libraries, unsurprisingly, reported an increased demand for ebooks, wireless connectivity and other technology tools and services.  More than one-third of the respondents reported that they spent more money on information technology hardware, software, and related IT services over the past year. 

More libraries are moving to the cloud for operational support and content storage.  26% of them are already offering e-readers, with one respondent stating that this activity will be an area of 'extreme growth'.

Ebooks in libraries - an opportunity or a false dawn?

Ebooks have certainly caught on with the general public.   They are also generating excitement in the library community, with some US public library services reporting large increases in circulation due to their e-book collections.  Writing in Searcher, Steve Coffman notes the popularity of ebook conference programmes, summits, blog posts and journal articles.

However, he strikes a note of caution.  Publishers and online bookstores do not want libraries to become a 'free Netflix for digital books'. Concerned about devaluation of their products, some major US publishers will not sell newly published ebooks to libraries; two won't provide libraries with any ebooks at all while one limits libraries to 26 ebook circulations. Other restrictions imposed on libraries include complex digital rights management (DRM) requirements and geographic restrictions.   Publishers can control the amount of free material they offer readers (e.g. a chapter of a new book) and don't need libraries to help them with this type of marketing initiative. 

While licences restrict libraries in their use of ebooks, players such as Amazon, Apple and Google are now able to provide access to millions of titles, outranking most print collections.  Many of these books are available free of charge and, unlike with books borrowed from libraries, users won't be expected to return them.  Additionally, readers will no longer need libraries to find titles that are a little more esoteric or were published long ago.   "Clearly, libraries are no longer the only game in town when it comes to providing library services."

Coffman's article summarises a number of projects which were once considered pivotal in placing libraries at the centre of the digital revolution - and which failed to do so.  Perhaps the fate of ebook provision by libraries is destined to go this way too.  Coffman wonders whether libraries really should have a role in providing e-books at all.


Both the articles mentioned above are available online via Information Today.

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