Yeah, e-books are great — but libraries are in a tough spot

New reports from the American Libraries Association and Pew Internet and American Life Project reveal that despite the increasing number of e-books available to library patrons, libraries themselves face big challenges in weathering the transition.
Some findings from the reports:

More digital demand, less funding

Over 75 percent of libraries now offer e-books, up from 67.2 percent last year, the ALA reports. Thirty-nine percent also lend out e-readers. Libraries are also creating mobile versions of their websites (14 percent) and releasing smartphone apps (7 percent).
Pew reports that 12 percent of Americans ages 16 and older who read e-books have borrowed an e-book from a library in the past year.
At the same time, more than 40 percent of states have reported decreased public library funding for three years in a row.

Many patrons are still oblivious

Pew asked adults ages 16 and over whether they knew if they could borrow e-books from their library. Sixty-two percent weren’t sure. In addition, 48 percent of e-reader owners (Kindles and Nooks) didn’t know if their library lends e-books, and 47 percent of people who read an e-book in the past year didn’t know.
That could actually be a good thing since libraries are already struggling to keep up with the demand from patrons who do know about their e-books. “I am concerned that demand so far outstrips the availability in our community that I will create too many dissatisfied users with more publicity and no more funds or availability of titles,” one library director told Pew.

Librarians spend more time providing tech support

Pew says librarians are “anxious about the new set of demands on them to learn about the operations of new gadgets, to master every new web application, and to de-bug every glitch on a digital device.” A “notable portion” say they are “self-taught techies” in the absence of serious staff training.
One librarian told Pew, “We spend a significant part of our day explaining how to get library books onto e-book readers.” Another noted “Many of our older patrons received electronic devices as gifts over the past two years. This group of library users asks for lots of help with their devices, from plugging them in to turning them on to trying to make them interface with the e-book portion of the library website.”

Discoverability is a challenge here, too

Browsing libraries’ e-book offerings is difficult. Many libraries are now using digital distributor OverDrive as their e-book provider and it seems the platform’s browsing capabilities simply aren’t stacking up. “Many patrons” use a workaround like this one: “I will sometimes go to Amazon to find titles I might like, then search them in OverDrive, since Amazon’s interface is so much more reader friendly.”
One librarian called the process of checking out an e-book from a library and then downloading it onto a device “a cumbersome, nonsensical, multi-part process in which we lose too many people along the way.” Both patrons and librarians “longed for e-book titles to be integrated into the main library catalog in order to streamline the process.”

Publishers don’t make enough e-books available

Big-six publishers vary in their e-book library strategies, but most limit e-book borrowing in some way (more details here). One librarian noted, “Money is not the major obstacle for us; the major obstacle is the lack of publishers and titles in OverDrive. We are purchasing Nook devices and loading them with bestsellers to add to our OverDrive titles.”
Molly Raphael, president of the ALA, responded to the Pew report with the following statement: “Libraries cannot lend what they cannot obtain. ALA and others continue to call on publishers to make their e-books available to libraries at fair prices and terms.”

What can be done?

The Pew and ALA reports reflect excitement but also trepidation in the ways that the e-book revolution is playing out in libraries. Pew reports that 69 percent of Americans say the library is important to them and their family, but as libraries face major funding cuts, states, cities and patrons will face tough choices. If the majority of Americans think libraries are important, it seems to me that we’ll need to express our support not just through good wishes but through campaigning to public officials and fundraising for our local libraries. Right now the New York Public Library, already one of the largest and most well-funded in the country, faces $43 million in budget cuts. If those cuts aren’t reversed, the library’s fiscal year 2013 budget would be 44 percent lower than it was in 2008.
It also seems to me that there is a role for technology companies to play here. Companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Apple should support local libraries not just because they’re good for communities but because they introduce patrons to new technologies and help them become paying customers. In fact, Pew finds that library card holders read more books in general, own more technology and are more likely to say they plan to purchase an e-reader or a tablet. In addition, most e-book readers prefer to buy their e-books rather than borrowing them (61 percent) and they use libraries as a place to discover new books. So as libraries face the challenge of providing tech support and helping patrons use their new e-readers, retailers could also play a bigger role by providing more instructions, information and tech support to library patrons. Perhaps they could even take the lead in running library workshops on how to use the new technologies.
Image courtesy of Flickr / melanzane1013