According to a panel of experts assembled by the American Library Association’s Digital Content Working Group (DCWG) at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Boston, the ebook glass is half full. Libraries have reasons to be optimistic about the ebook future, though this optimism is tempered by warnings to keep the pressure on publishers, vendors, and ourselves to produce a coherent user experience. It’s no secret that we’re not there yet.
The panel was hosted by DCWG cochairs Erika Linke, associate dean of Carnegie Mellon University Libraries, and Carolyn Anthony, director of the Skokie (Ill.) Public Library. The panelists were Mark Kuyper, executive director of the Book Industry Study Group (BISG); Andrew Albanese, senior writer and features editor for Publishers Weekly (PW); and Kelvin Watson, chief innovation and technology officer, Queens (N.Y.) Library.
Kuyper began the program with information from the recent BISG survey that was conducted in cooperation with ALA and PW. “Digital Content in Public Libraries: What Do Patrons Think?” looks at the borrowing and purchasing habits of public library users. The survey of 2,000 public library users was conducted online, and it confirms many of the things we thought we knew. Of the respondents, 44% say they borrow ebooks from their library and 38% say they purchase ebooks, so library borrowing and ebook purchasing clearly coexist. A heartening 99% say they visit their public library in person as opposed to just borrowing electronic content online, and 66% also visit their library online. Physical visits and online visits coexist as well. Just 7% of respondents read ebooks exclusively. When looking for an ebook that is not immediately available, 36% say they place a hold, 24% borrow the print book if available, and 14% purchase the ebook. This arrangement seems to be working for library users, but what about nonusers and users who don’t know we have ebooks?
Albanese reported on the trends in digital content sales. Ebook sales were down in 2015 for the first time since the introduction of the Kindle reader in 2007. He linked this decline to the lack of new e-reader devices and the trend away from dedicated ebook readers to the use of tablets and phones as e-reading platforms. He also contends that there is not likely to be much experimentation by publishers with the library market in the next few years. On the consumer side, the recent increase in price from $9.99 to $14.99 for ebooks from major publishers has likely dampened sales in what he called a “maturing market.” He says people are falling out of love with ebook technology and moving back to print, where sales are up. Another problem for publishers is the trend among younger readers away from ebooks.
Watson brought the presentations to a close and tied them together as he discussed Queens Library’s response to Hurricane Sandy and how that has led to the creation of a virtual library. In the aftermath of Sandy in 2012, when several branches were closed due to storm damage, Google gave Queens Library 5,000 Nexus tablets. Watson and his team loaded these tablets with ebooks and other library resources and lent them to patrons as a substitute library. These tablets are still in use and still popular today as they provide access to all of the library’s online resources. With the Sandy crisis past, Watson says the library continues to develop its virtual library following three key principles:
- Your library on demand
- Simple access to everything
- Eliminate obstacles and silos
He described efforts to get vendors to provide robust APIs so that the content can be accessed directly through a library user interface rather than through different vendor interfaces (silos).
Fighting complacency on ebooks
So where does all this leave public libraries? The glass is half full, but it’s only half full. Albanese reminded the audience of statistics from OverDrive. Total library ebook circulation on OverDrive increased 19% from 2014 to 2015, but the 2014 increase was 33%, and the 2013 increase was 46%. While other vendors are not counted here, it is still clear that growth is slowing.
Albanese left us with a few suggestions for the future. He called this a dangerous time for libraries because the basics of access to ebooks have been achieved, but complacency could set in if we don’t remain vigilant. He advised continuing to work with publishers but putting pressure on the vendors to give us what we need.
In terms of working with the vendors, libraries need to be able to experiment and develop on the Queens model to provide single points of access to all materials, both physical and digital, and a solid customer experience. We’re in competition with Amazon and other online retailers to provide a customer experience that keeps users coming back once they know what we offer.
Albanese concluded with this admonition: “You are the closest thing the public has to a voice in the room as the digital future is hashed out.” Let that sink in. It’s good to know we have allies and creative people in our field, such as those on this panel and others to innovate on behalf of the public.
A glass that is half full can easily be drained, but it can also be filled. It’s up to us to make that happen.
Want to know more? The BISG survey results are available as an executive summary (free to BISG and ALA members), or in a complete 85-page PDF report. Online orders are accepted at Digital Content in Public Libraries. ALA members should email firstname.lastname@example.org for a special discount code.