Rupert Colley, librarian and 'History In An Hour' digital publisher, considers where libraries sit in the ebook revolution.

Footfall. Always an important measure of success for the public library. How many customers / users step through the front door and into your library. We must, we must improve our visitor figures. For the library service, as a tool for performance management, visitor figures remain Very Important.

And then, once we have our visitor, we give them their PIN, so that next time they want to renew their books they can log onto their PC at home and do so without having to come into the library. Or if they want to check the catalogue and reserve an item – armed with their PIN they can do so - without having to come in; to access The Times from three years ago; to check that entry on Who’s Who – all without having to come in.

And now, to add to it, if they want to read that new bestseller without waiting for the waiting list to diminish they can also do this remotely.

There’s still much to be found within the physical walls of your library and reasons aplenty to make that visit (and help us with those all-important figures) but a patron, if they should be so-minded, can make full use of the library service from home.

The library service is very different from what it was when I first entered the profession two decades ago. But to simplify a difficult question with a complex answer  – are libraries failing? The answer? No. They are merely adapting. And they are adapting because, to remain relevant, they have to.

The Virtual library is a silver-platter service with knobs on. Access to a full reference library, always up to date and easy to search. And your local library service has paid the hefty subscription so that the user doesn't have to. But the Virtual library is comparatively old-hat. For the digital lending library, however, the loan of novels and narrative non-fiction as ebooks and e-audio, is still very new.

The advantages are many-fold: lots of readers can access a book at the same time; no more waiting lists; immediate access to the latest bestsellers, the book simply deletes itself after the loan period, so no more overdue fines. The visually-impaired will no longer have to wait a whole year before that latest bestseller is released as an audiobook.

The disadvantages? Choice of platform, there’s a wide choice but often, as we know, choice can provoke panic and confusion. But two of the most obvious choices are notable by their absence – the Kindle and the iPhone (or iPad). 

Your average library collection of ebooks and e-audio remains limited but that will surely change as libraries supply more and customers demand more. The economics, within the library environment aren’t difficult to work out. What is more difficult are the economics for booksellers and publishers. Some publishers, notably Macmillan and Simon & Schuster, do not allow their e-books to be offered in public libraries.

Amazon US announced last week that for every 100 hardcover books they sold in the last three months, they sold 143 ebooks for their Kindle. 

What about the customer, the visitor? What do they think of all this? For some we are changing too much – self-service, online renewals. What’s happening to the old-fashioned personal service that libraries were so renowned for? 

For others, we are still victim of the old stereotypes and whatever we throw at them as proof of the contrary, the 24/7 service, the digital mainstream, we still fail to convince. 

We, the library service, are part of Martha Lane Fox's ‘Race Online’.  Fact is we’ve been running an awfully long time and however much we shout people don’t always know it. But we’re there; we’re bringing literature to the generation of the digitally-enabled. And the housebound. And the commuter. We’ve got the remote user on the move within our sights and we aint letting go.

So next time you go into your local library and you think it’s a bit empty and you spot the librarian worrying about visitor figures, remember half the users are at home – browsing in the virtual library.

 

Rupert Colley works at Enfield Library in London.

He has published his own series of iPhone apps, History in an Hour (History for busy people), more about them here: http://historyinanhour.com 

If you are a librarian and you would like to get involved with Futurebook.net, please email me at sam.missingham@bookseller.co.uk

 

Comments

The Future of Libraries

I am not familiar with the usage of libraries in the UK. I have been pained upon reading that sever cuts and closures are happening. The loss of a library reminds me of Peter Pan, that when someone says they don't believe in fairies, one drops dead somewhere in the world. We can ill afford to lose one fairy or one library. Libraries were instituted to be a depository for the world's knowledge and as a resource for the common folk.

I have the privilege of traveling about the USA, visiting libraries as part of research for my novels. What I see is more than adequate patronage, sometimes bordering on being down right crowded. Outside I see new construction as buildings are expanded to accommodate usage. Such a sight is heart-warming for an old purveyor of words. And it is not only old people, but the young who bump and jostle one in the isles.

I appreciate Mr. Colley's spin on this and future-looking comments. Libraries must always be with us and the expertise of dedicated librarians who hold the keys to those immense and sometimes bewildering collections. The difference will be that instead of competing for isle space and for those little stools (so we who use bifocals can see what is on the bottom shelf), we may find the answers to our questions by sitting at home to peruse the library's collection on our electronic gadget.

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