Even now, do most public librarians still not “get” e-books and their potential? Sadly, despite all the chest-thumping in the profession, my answer is, “Yes.” A new article in American Libraries Magazines, by Jamie LaRue, a smart librarian friend of mine who should know better, is actually somewhat of a retreat from earlier e-book advocacy.
This backsliding is all the more unfortunate in the wake of a new U.K. study, mentioned here earlier, which shows how e-books can entice young people to read—especially boys and the disadvantaged. “Fewer pupils eligible for free school meals felt that reading was difficult for them,” concluded the researchers for the National Literacy Trust. “The percentage that felt reading was difficult halved over the course of the project, decreasing from 26.7% pre-project to 12.6% post-project.”
Meanwhile past findings from Pew have revealed that the poor and minorities actually care more about well-stocked libraries than do library patrons as a whole, and the economies of e-books could go a long way in addressing their needs, especially as hardware prices plummet. The Pew information jibes with the responses I received to a Facebook post that pointed to one of TeleRead’s appeals for the creation of full-strength national digital library systems. Look at the faces in the screen shot to the left. Most of the post’s 18 Likes were from African-Americans and Hispanics. Some occupations of the 18? Concrete worker. Front-desk receptionist. Stocker at Food Lion. While not neglecting the middle and upper classes, libraries have a special obligation to serve poor people and working people; and, as long as we address digital divide issues, e-books can help.
And yet Jamie, ex-director of the tech-hip Douglas County Libraries in Colorado, actually seems at least a tad less committed to e-books for library use nowadays than in the past. I hope Jamie will read the U.K. study carefully and change his mind. He has been one of the librarians most open to e-books, and if his advocacy has waned somewhat, then how about the others? Commenting on a Book Industry Study Group survey of library patrons done in partnership with the American Library Association, Jamie says it found “a correlation between ebook use and declining library visits.” He says people will go to the library for other reasons. Perhaps “traditional libraries have a shelf life that won’t end anytime soon.”
Even at the personal level, Jamie has “kind of given up” on libraries as e-book sources. Of course, many TeleRead community members would disagree that e-book-lovers as a group are not among the most gung-ho library users, especially given the outrageous prices gouges that have driven them from Amazon and the like to libraries as source of free books. I myself won’t take sides here about the validity of the survey’s findings or Jamie’s summary of them. The study could well be on target.
Here’s the real problem, however. Jamie goes on to write: “I wonder if we don’t need a way to survey nonlibrary ebook readers. Have we lost them for good?” No, Jamie: that isn’t the Issue #1, regardless of its importance. The big question, in the wake of the U.K. study, is: “How can we use e-books to expand the universe of readers?” amid strong evidence that it has shrunk here in the States. As I have written, based on Pew research, “only 72 percent of U.S. adults read books in the 12 months prior to March-April 2015. By contrast, the 2014 equivalent was 76 percent and the 2011 one was 79 percent. Oops. Seven percent in the wrong direction from 2011 to 2015, despite an upward bump along the way.” Yes, it is always nice if libraries report more physical visits. But what numbers count more in the end—turnstile numbers or book-readership statistics?
Here are my own thoughts for Jamie and others:
1. Public libraries need more outreach with e-books in mind. I want to see related posters on the walls of public places, even check cashing stores—as well as movie and television celebrities talking up E on TV and reading it digitally themselves. And why don’t librarians care more about cell phone book clubs? More minority librarians also would help outreach efforts. Like publishing, the library world is notorious for the low percentage of African-Americans and Hispanics in professional jobs.
2. Librarians also need to try much harder to teach e-book literacy to patrons, not just the disadvantaged but also library users as a whole. You should not read E like P. Instead of flipping pages, for example, you can use search features to keep up with mentions of characters in a novel. You can also learn more about e-book ergonomics so you can read more comfortably and comprehensively. You can switch on all-bold text, if your software allows, to improve perceived contrast. Also you can try out light characters against a dark background if your reader permits. All this sounds basics. But most patrons aren’t aware of the possibilities. No wonder some might forsake E. “’Over the past 12 months,’ Jamie writes, ‘96% of survey respondents read at least one print book, while 44% read at least one ebook.’ For a while—2014, mainly—it was clear that about half of our patrons had ebook readers or tablets and wanted ebooks. Now it’s 44%.” That’s still a large number, but it would be higher if librarians and patrons alike better understood the technology and how to use it.
3. In a related vein, librarians should lean more heavily on the e-book industry to upgrade the quality of popular e-reading programs—abysmal. Just a few days ago I showed how pathetic Amazon’s e-reading software is compared to Moon+ Reader Pro. Software from Amazon and the like is at a very basic level. Enough of the dumbed-down software! And along the way, let’s encourage library patrons to master the extra features that the Moon and the like can offer. Aren’t libraries a place to better oneself with new skills? Of course, if librarians themselves are less than optimally prepared, the patrons themselves can’t live up to their full potential.
4. Academic research on e-books is a disaster area, and librarians should push for improvements. One of the major benefits of e-books is the ability to customize fonts, margins, colors, you name it, for the optimal use. Why do librarians seriously take experiments that compare E and P while inflicting the inflexible PDF format on the people reading digitally? Not to mention that the research subjects are probably a lot more familiar with p-reading techniques than with e-reading ones. Too many e-book researchers might as well be dabbling in phrenology; that’s about the level of the science.
5. Jamie correctly noted the unhappiness of patrons with the quantity of digital offerings, and librarians should try harder to increase money for e-books while also continuing to learn on publishers for better prices and other terms (Jamie has been a leader in pointing out the gouges that libraries have suffered). U.S. public librarians can spend just $4 or so per capita each year on content of all kinds, digital and paper. If digital is still just a fraction of that pitiful spending, is it any wonder that patrons are unhappy with the range of e-books? Beyond that, we need to think of libraries as more than tax-supported variants of Amazon or Barnes & Noble. They should entice readers with romances and other popular offerings but ever so gently nudge them toward books that challenge and enlighten. Let’s think more of libraries as providers of needed services and less of them in commercial terms.
6. A national digital library endowment could help realize all of the above goals, and when the idea appeared in Education Week, it drew 103 Likes. By contrast, a previous article about the proposal in Library Journal drew no comments, a good sign that many librarians just don’t grasp the possibilities here. And earlier an LJ column, implicitly showing a naïve faith in the likelihood of libraries attracting enough tax dollars from the public side, actually came out against the endowment idea. Jamie himself isn’t against the endowment concept. He just feels right now that his advocacy of it would turn him into a mere spokesperson for me, a nonlibrarian—a rather unfortunate conclusion, especially since the plan cites many mainstream ideas from the library and K-12 worlds, such as the value of recreational reading. The proposal has called for the hiring and digital-era professional development of minority librarians; it can only help libraries. What’s more, the idea is hardly just a David one. None other than Jim Duncan, executive director of the Colorado Library Consortium, collaborated with me on pro-endowment pieces for Library Journal and Education Week; I’ve benefitted considerably from Jim’s insights, as well as those of Tom Peters, now dean of university library services at Missouri State. Tom urged me to start the LibraryCity site, now the home base for the endowment idea.
I like Jamie and am grateful for all the heroic digital pioneering he has done for public libraries, as well as his literacy efforts with paper books (yes, children need exposure to both E and P!); and as he readies himself to begin his new duties next month as director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and the Freedom to Read Foundation, I hope he’ll show a more open mind and come out explicitly in favor of the endowment. Receptiveness to others’ helpful ideas is the mark of a good leader. ALA’s backing of the endowment plan, ideally with Jamie’s encouragement, would be a constructive response to a column in Publishers Weekly by another professional friend of mine, Peter Brantley. “I don’t know why a lack of leadership culture has persisted in the library community,” Peter said. “In quieter decades, the absence of charismatic, visionary library leaders might not have mattered. But in the Internet age, this lack of leadership is a self-inflicted wound.” Laudably, Jamie himself wrote PW to praise Peter’s views as “Insightful and thought-provoking as usual.”
Regardless of the failings that Peter correctly pointed out as a concerned friend of libraries and a veteran digital strategist for them, I still see hope in libraries as forces for positive social change—especially now with so many immigrants striving to enter the mainstream of American life. Digital-savvy librarians, truly prepared for the era of cell phones, beloved by so many members of ethnic minorities, could be powerful encouragers of assimilation. And school librarians, not just those with public libraries, also have a special role to play.
Again—Jamie was right to zero in on the limitations of the ALA/Book Industry Study Group survey. But he should worry less about winning over the existing e-book users and more about using E to expand the total number of readers, both among immigrants and native-born Americans. The expansion of the American lower class, along with the shrinking percentage of income going both there and to the besieged middle class, makes these questions even more urgent. True, some members of the middle class are reaching the upper class. But that will result in their relying less on public libraries, which is bad news when library supporters ask for tax support. A national digital library endowment could help make libraries more attractive to people in all economic brackets by increasing the number of e-book choices and helping to upgrade the work force to the economic benefit of everyone—Wall Streeters included.
Meanwhile, regardless of whether Jamie comes out with an endowment, happiest of holidays to him and congratulations to ALA on its wise choice for intellectual freedom and freedom to read director!
Note: This is a “first edition”; I may be making corrections and other tweaks.