Where do you draw the line?

By Kate Sheehan |

One of my journalistic pet peeves is “my three friends are doing this” masquerading as a trend story. However, it does make a decent jumping-off point for a blog post. I was chatting recently with a library director, who expressed some concern about promoting library ebooks. His feeling was that the infamous 21 steps to download a library ebook was too onerous and would only send the message that libraries were not capable of keeping up with technology. I had just returned from OverDrive’s Digipalooza user-group conference, where librarians gave impassioned talks about their ebook promotions and programs. Digipalooza librarians (an enthusasitic group, to be sure) cited ebook circulation statistics that were climbing ever higher and happy patrons (in their pajamas!) embracing the 21st century library.

Line between old and new buildings in Grand Rapids, MIYet here was a library director echoing a sentiment I’ve heard from more than one librarian and seen in the letters sections of library publications.

Why invest in and promote library ebooks when they’re still feeling some growing pains? Budgets are tight, and those with fiduciary responsibility may be drawn to sure things.

My questions back have been: how will people know that buying an ereader doesn’t mean abandoning the library? And what about those people who have rediscovered reading thanks to their gadgets, but haven’t rediscovered the library? What about the harried, busy citizens who never have time to come to the library and think it has nothing for them?

This back and forth is really asking where to draw the line between trying new things and the caution against throwing meager funds after iffy user experiences. Every library has a tale of technological woe: the great new thing that wasn’t so great or the sure bet that turned out to be a bust. But ebooks aren't quite the same as that machine that was so terribly expensive 20 years ago and is now dirt cheap or outdated (everyone has something like that in the back room, yes?). Or even earlier format wars like VHS vs. Betamax. We can’t afford to wait until the ebook experience is consistent and standardized for consumers and library patrons. People are buying ereaders like they’re going out of style, literally. Every prognosticator has said that dedicated ereaders will not be with us for long, as tablets become more powerful and ubiquitous (or we all get chips implanted). But screen reading is here for the long haul. We’re adding another dimension to the “right book at the right time” mantra of reader’s advisory – right format. (In many ways nothing new – as a regular reader of audiobooks, I developed preferences for format in conjunction with content.)

It seems deeply depressing that people moving from reading primarily on paper to reading primarily on a screen would think that they were shifting from libraries too. How can we help but run up to everyone toting a Kindle and shout “library books for you will be here SO SOON!” And yet, what I hear when my three friends say “we don’t want to promote something that makes the library look difficult to use” is “we’re about access and this doesn’t fit the bill.”

Personally, I came back from Digipalooza feeling like I had undergone a conversion experience. I don’t use OverDrive a huge amount, and I went to Cleveland a skeptic. The people I met there were so ardently committed to libraries, it was hard not to want to root for them. Librarians described doing everything from dressing in costume to accosting people in train stations to promote their ebook service. And the vendor clearly was matching the customer in effort and passion. All to say that I recognize that the complexity of lending ebooks is not entirely a vendor-driven problem. Nor are the struggles with these issues due to lack of effort in creating solutions.

But I returned to skeptical questions from my three friends. They’re worthwhile questions, especially because we are still in the infancy of ebooks. Where you or your library draws the line on ebooks will inevitably change over time and will play out again with each technological question. ALA TechSource readers, how do you decide what emerging technology is just idle speculation and what’s worth trying? Where do you draw the line?