Libraries aren't typically thought of as ahead of the technological curve, but when it comes to e-books, they may be ahead of their for-profit counterparts. With e-books becoming as common as iTunes MP3s and companies like Amazon becoming their go-to source, bookstores are deciding whether to shift into the digital market or rely on their few loyal customers who still prefer a tangible book.
Out of 20 randomly selected New York City bookstores contacted by The Eye, only eight have chosen to sell electronic books. Popular independent bookstore Strand has chosen not to enter the e-book business because of its ever-evolving and precarious nature, according to Carson Moss, a Strand buyer.
“We are pretty firm in our decision not to sell e-readers like other independent bookstores,” he says. “Selling that hardware seems like ushering in our own demise, and encouraging others to move towards a different reading style.”
But libraries are responding differently to printed books’ demise, redefining their roles by increasing their e-book supplies and offering resources such as résumé and job training, workshops, and a number of renovations. The New York Public Library is a quintessential example of a library that has responded to the challenges of the digital age. According to Amy Geduldig, the NYPL’s public relations manager, e-books have been downloadable online alongside the library collection’s 700,000 images and materials since 2004.
The NYPL is answering the widespread request for e-books by collaborating with 3M Cloud Library, which provides libraries with technologies such as e-book lending services, as well as Penguin Group (USA), which provides patrons with e-books six months after they are first released by the publisher. The NYPL can loan these e-books from Penguin for one year until it must renew them. This one-year pilot program, launched in August 2012, is a model that, if successful, would be expanded to schools and libraries across the country, according to Geduldig.
In addition to offering e-books, the library has plans to relocate materials and resources from its Mid-Manhattan Library to the nearby Schwarzman Building, which will double the space available in the main building. Resources from the Science, Industry, and Business Library will be available in 2018 as part of the NYPL’s Central Library Plan. The opening of the new circulating library within the Schwarzman Building will bring with it workshops and classes taught by professionals. The library already brings in speakers through its LIVE series, and it even offers exercise, knitting, and language classes, all of which Geduldig cites as part of an effort to build a tighter-knit community.
“Libraries have become community centers, and we are serious about that role,” Geduldig says. “Our libraries are a reflection of the communities we serve, and it is our mission to support our users.” These increased responsibilities don’t come without challenges. And perhaps the biggest challenge libraries face right now is delivering digital materials, which requires shuttling money away from print content. Considering independent bookstores have, for the most part, dropped out of that race altogether, this burden falls especially hard on libraries.
For example, Columbia spends more than a million dollars each year on its collection of over 2 million e-books. And at the NYPL, 193 members trying to borrow The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo were put on a waiting list last April, according to a New York Times article published that month.
But libraries are facing challenges in acquiring these e-books. According to a recent Forbes Magazine article, only HarperCollins and Random House are offering e-books to libraries. And while the former limits each e-book to 26 “lends” before the library must repurchase it, the latter charges exorbitantly high prices for some of its titles. The Forbes article criticizes publishers and libraries for having the “wrong argument” with each other. Essentially, thinking about e-books as licensed, as opposed to owned in the library, could be the key to getting both parties to move forward. The article proposes a system that focuses on the “cost-per-circulation,” essentially a per-use way of establishing a price point for e-books. Rather than predicting the marketability of any one book, this model serves to respond to its borrowing popularity and price it accordingly.
But Robert Wolven, associate university librarian for bibliographic services and collection development at Columbia University Libraries, believes determining e-book prices is difficult. He says the idea proposed by the Forbes article has potential, but he stresses that one must be cautious with the ramifications of such solutions.
“I think [the number of uses is] a useful measure, and one of the factors being taken into account,” he says. “It’s tricky with books, though, when someone can take out a book and not even open it, so we’re evaluating the possibilities.”
As e-books move toward becoming the norm, publishers and buyers will need to agree on a standardized price model. Considering libraries are beginning to replace bookstores as the publishing house’s primary customer, it’s in the best interest of both book makers and distributors to learn to work together.