International Libraries Confronted by Ebook Library Lending

April 4, 2013

ALA Immediate Past President Molly Raphael had the opportunity to visit China last fall to speak to the library community there about some of the struggles that many American libraries face as they try to provide ebooks and digital content to the public. Her speaking tour included stops in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Xi’an, Guangzhou, Dongguan, Hong Kong, and Macau.

Raphael’s visit to the country generated high interest among Chinese library leaders who wanted to learn more about the ways in which US libraries are addressing ebook lending challenges. Conversely, the international trip afforded Raphael the opportunity to learn about how libraries overseas are collaborating and working with publishers to find fair ebook lending solutions.

After speaking on the ebook issue at the National Library in Beijing, Raphael was asked to submit her speech, “The Digital Shift: How eBooks and e-Content Are Changing Readers and Libraries,” to the prestigious Journal of Library Science of China  for publication. (It has been published in (Volume 39, Issue No. 1.) Here’s an excerpt from her speech:

One of the most important issues about digital resources and ebooks is future access. For centuries, libraries have been valued for the role they play in preservation and access long after something has gone out of print. As we begin to see more and more ebooks available in digital only, who will care whether those books are available in the future? Particularly in research and scholarly libraries, long-term access is a key focus. Libraries keep books, not just when they are popular but long after. Libraries also invest in preserving books, trying to extend their lives when the paper of print copies deteriorates or making sure that digital content continues to be available. Entities like HathiTrust and the Internet Archive in the United States are clearly trying to do this in digital form for print books as well as sources that are only available in digital format. In my country, we are asking ourselves if we want to rely on publishers, who ultimately must look to the bottom line of making a profit, or huge corporations like Google, to ensure access in the future. Clearly, future access is another area that our libraries will protect.

And one more access issue: Libraries have always made books findable and that is not going to change. The way that we make books available changes in a digital world, to be sure, but our systems are changing too. With “discoverability” much more challenging with ebooks than with print books, we are counting on libraries being able to continue to develop and implement systems and tools to make information findable.

Does all this focus on the digital world mean the end of print? I think print will be with us for a long time, but it will coexist along with more and more digital. When we met with publishers, we learned that they are still making major investments in warehouses, for example. They would not be doing that if they thought that print books were going to disappear soon.

No doubt we are living in the most exciting but, in many ways, most anxiety-producing, times for libraries and librarians. I continue to be optimistic that libraries and library leaders will be forward-looking and be willing to make bold choices in how they continue to adapt in the future. Future generations will, no doubt, use libraries even though they may be very different, just as libraries of today are different from libraries of my childhood.

I look forward to hearing from you about how you see this new digital world here in China as well as beyond its borders. The possibilities in this global society are exciting and open-ended.

The full speech is available for download here.