eBooks are Not a Zero Sum Game

There is much hubbub around the “bookless” library, as came through the Time Magazine blog on Monday.  In that article they looked at a couple of engineering libraries where they have forgone book stacks for computer labs.  And yes, as the new Bowker report implies print sales are down, eBook sales are going up.*  This is not news.  But much like the “paperless office” the reality of what eBooks and databases do within libraries is more complex than that.

As a trend in academic libraries, especially those that cater in research in applied sciences I can see how this approach can make sense.  The distribution method is substantially swifter, and reduces duplication of content in print/electronic form. Certainly this was the case when I was in China, where the Wuhan University Libraries were loaded with some of the most prestigious databases in the world, but their physical stacks left a lot to be desired.

But there are two major counterpoints to this proposition.  1) The exorbitant cost of academic publishing and 2) the digital divide.

Academic publishing has been broken for a while, and the gulf has only continued to grow beyond anyone’s ability to staunch the wound.  Academic journals have very low print runs, and thus have extremely high overhead to produce.  So the cost of the information in the first place is high, and only getting higher.  Then the content is resold to an aggregator service who puts that journal content into various databases, which in turn get resold to libraries at ever increasing costs.  In order to maintain access to the extremely useful database content libraries have been sacrificing printed materials budgets to digital budgets.  Hence why libraries may just give up purchasing printed materials altogether.  It’s a product of a monopolistic and ruthless information economy. Slowly attempts have been made to break free from the vicious cycle of academic publishing, but to date it has not been terribly successful.  If libraries are going to be able to maintain any sense of budget, they are going to have to drive academic publishing into a more open information model.

We also cannot forget that there is still a digital divide, and that it is only getting more and more problematic.  Those who do not have the money to afford a computer with an internet connection will continue to lag behind in the information economy.  Public Libraries have been able to help tremendously in that regard.  But there is no way that public library computers can ever provide the continuous access required to read an eBook without creating a madly expensive eReader borrowing service.  No one is going to have the money for that.

Printed copies of books are still going to be necessary in libraries for a long time.  eBooks and databases are a part of the puzzle, but we as a profession need to work collectively to come up with compelling solutions as to how we can serve all of our patrons and not get completely screwed by our electronic collections.


* This from the summary of highlights at Information Today.  Personally I can’t afford to blow a cool grand on this report, no matter how informative it may be.  If anyone out there wants to buy it for me I would graciously accept a copy.

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One comment on “eBooks are Not a Zero Sum Game

  1. Danno Brown says:

    Hey bro. I disagree. I think that ereaders will move the same way as all other technologies. In a matter of years, eReaders will be as cheap as disposable cell phones (around $25).

    also, i think the digital divide argument is a flawed. if we’re going to be honest about the digital divide, we have to accept that we’re talking about poor people, uneducated people and elderly people.

    its not really an issue of accessibility; its an issue of willingness. the information is there, but when people are faced with the question of whether or not to devote the time and effort necessary to learn new technologies, the answer is usually no.

    why the answer is usually no is a different story.

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