Monday, March 19, 2012

eBooks: A Guest Post by Toby Greenwalt

This month's post comes from Toby Greenwalt, a digital branch manager and reference librarian in suburban Chicago who is passionate about exploring the intersection of libraries, technology, and community. He blogs at and tweets as @theanalogdivide.

So there I was. Early this morning, working the Reader’s Advisory desk, greeted by what has now become a familiar sight. A frequent patron, voracious reader, with an extensive hold list and very particular tastes. And one of the last people you’d expect to see behind a computer.

“I just got this Kindle,” she said, opening up her purse. “Can I use it to check out eBooks from the library?”

Two months ago, this was an exciting transaction. Today, it’s a harbinger of what’s sure to be a frustrating time for all parties.

Helping a patron discover new reading material should be an easy transaction, right? Locate book, remove from shelf, hand to patron. eBooks have gotten folks excited about reading in a way that hasn’t happened since vampires first discovered glitter. And libraries have been on board from the start. From buying Rocket eReaders over a decade ago, to offering downloadable eBooks via Overdrive around 2004, to providing hands-on training to every Nook, Kindle, and Kobo that comes in through the door, librarians have been laying the groundwork for this eBook revolution for years. Which makes it a shame that the industry is taking a step back in its dealings with us.

Let’s take this patron that I spoke with this morning. I walked her over to a computer and we started browsing our eBook collection.

“I really like J.D. Robb. Do you have her new one, Celebrity in Death?”

Hoo boy. We have nearly every volume of Eve Dallas’ adventures, but not the newest one. Robb publisher Penguin recently chose to stop offering eBooks to libraries, making any future “In Death” titles off-limits to eBook readers. Similarly, other Big 6 publishers (Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan) refuse to sell eBooks to libraries at all. Our patrons certainly don’t keep track of which imprint is responsible for which title, and many of us are now scrambling to come up ways with ways to respond to this newfound wrinkle. It’s made the library role in the discovery process quite difficult, and quite frustrating. Some librarians are even wondering if we should get out of the eBook game entirely.

But I’m convinced the library and publishing industries can find common ground. To reach this point, we’ve got to work together. Libraries continue to play a vital role in helping the public discover new reading material. According to a study commissioned by Library Journal, over 50 percent of all library users go on to purchase titles by authors discovered at the library. A little creativity can help our respective industries develop mutually agreeable solutions. Librarians have been working to develop a solution, as groups like Library Renewal and Gluejar
can attest.

There’s plenty of room for libraries to help turn checkouts into sales. But we can’t do it without the circulations themselves.