This link made me think hard about the sabre-rattling that goes on around ebooks. Yes, wave-of-the-future, death-of-print, this-is-what-our-patrons-want, the-market-is-growing-at-800%. Ultimately, it looks like a marketing strategy. Perhaps people are reading less, but the big drive for ebooks comes from Amazon as a market leader, and all who aspire to compete with them, libraries included. But looking at the big picture, I can’t help but feel that the 8% market share of ebooks in the U.S is pushed from above by these companies rather than by any real need for them. Sure, publishing and libraries are in a squeeze, economically, and ebooks provide an way for publishers to cut costs and stay afloat in the face of a constricted market. But the 8% figure is only in the U.S., and compared to the intake of “books” is quite small. The UK numbers are between 1-9%, and in the rest of the world, it’s 1% or less. Is industry-driven growth in the US and the UK really an indicator that this is the future? Like any other product, the ebook has been marketed to us as our salvation, when in reality, it is the next way for the publishing industry to gain profit. It’s been shown that the image of the library is tied to that of the book, but libraries need to position themselves beyond that. The challenge for us is to act as a barrier between those who produce material and those who disseminate it. Tim Wu’s conception of net neutrality is a helpful model to consider reading in full:
It would be foolish to assume that anything is unbiased, that anyone can operate without some conflict of interest. But as our digital tools become ever more essential, pervasive, and complex, the challenge is being able to detect those biases. Tim’s solution is what he terms “the separations principle,” a premise that, like the separation of Church and State, demands that the people in charge of carrying the content are not also the same ones producing it.
Finding ways to help people access information, for pleasure or otherwise, and then giving them the tools and the know-how to create new knowledge is bigger than books or ebooks. The true mission of the library is to lower the barriers for access into the “information economy” and frankly, the ebook is a distraction from the real mission of libraries. The recent dust-up over limiting ebooks has shown that libraries are not longer buying into the salvation myth, and we’re moving forward.