ALA TechSource Bloggers Discuss the Libraries at the Tipping Point eBook Summit

On Wednesday, September 29th, over 2000 people joined together for the (LJ/SLJ) “Libraries at the Tipping Point” eBook Summit.  This first-of-its-kind virtual discussion of eBooks offered a variety of conversations, programs, panels, and vendor information about the future of eBooks in libraries. 

As someone who has written and blogged extensively about eBooks, I was thrilled to take part in the virtual eBook summit, both as a participant, and as a moderator.  An event of this magnitude made me realize that we’re finally here!  After 11 long years (the introduction of NetLibrary), eBooks have finally hit the tipping point in libraries.  Several ALA TechSource bloggers, including Kate Sheehan, Jason Griffey, and Cindi Trainor, also took part in the summit.  I had a chance to ask them some questions about the value of the summit and common themes and issues.  Here’s what they had to say:

Sue Polanka: Which aspects of the eBook Summit were of value to you?

Kate Sheehan:  I was really impressed with the whole thing - I still haven't gotten to go back through the archive to catch up on the panels I missed, but I'd recommend the How eBooks Impact Libraries, Publishers & Readers panel, Ebook What-Ifs: Issues that Impact Scenario Planning, and the keynote presentations. I'm looking forward to going back to catch up on the K-12 track and the academic library track, though. I heard great things about the RA panel as well. The content was consistently great and the interface was very good as well. 

Jason Griffey:   There was an enormous amount of great info and thought provoking ideas here, but the two that really grabbed me were Eli Neiburger's section of the conference-wide panel, and Kevin Kelly's keynote. If you only listen to two things, those will give you enough to think about for a great while.

Cindi Trainor: I tend to gravitate toward visionary speakers who postulate about the future based on our past, so the talk given by Eli Neiburger resonated the most with me.  He later posted to twitter, "It was my intent to show we have a bright future if we can just stop living in the past,"
and he hit that nail right on the head.  The business models of the print world are not translating well into the electronic world, as far as libraries are concerned, and if libraries don't make herculean efforts to bring significant change, we are, as Eli said, screwed.

SP: During your panel discussion, what were the common themes and issues discussed?

JG:  I was a panelist on Reality Check: Putting Ebook Reading Devices into Kids’ Hands, and the focus seemed to be, like many of the panels of the day, on the problems with the current ebook situation; incompatible formats, DRM, and pricing structures. There was also a lot of talk about use-cases for K-12 education, and what ebooks might bring to the educational structures of public education.

SP: What are the biggest challenges for libraries in regard to eBooks? 

KS:  I think fear is a huge factor for libraries and ebooks. Libraries are facing budget crises; they're cutting back on staff, collections, and services and it seems that everywhere we turn, someone's predicting the end of libraries. Librarians who began their careers before the advent of the Internet are probably having major deja vu. It's tempting to just hunker down to wait for the publishers and big book retailers to duke it out, but I think David Lankes was right on the money when he urged librarians to get involved in the future of ebooks. I hope that all libraries can work together to find models and solutions that make sense for our members, but I do think different types of libraries will have different needs, though it may take a while for those differences to become obvious. 

I've only recently begun to spend time in school libraries, but I think a lot of them have done an excellent job positioning themselves as the place for students to learn research skills as well as develop a love of reading. That seems to have held them in good stead through the "everything is online" years and seems like a really good way to weather the "everything is on my kindle" years. It has the added benefit of being genuinely helpful and necessary to a good education. Both academics and school libraries may suffer from a broad assumption that young people will automatically prefer ebooks (though I'm sure young backs prefer etextbooks to heavy packs). Public libraries are just constantly under fire. As every public librarian knows, it seems like every other person wants to tell you that the library is dead. There's a pervasive sense of fear and powerlessness in public libraries when it comes to ebooks, but I think we're getting past that and starting to look at what our options are. 

JG:  I think that the biggest challenge is that libraries are being challenged at their most basic level: the ability to act as a collector and distributor of media under the First Sale doctrine. eBooks and other natively digital media types aren't bound by the same sorts of First Sale doctrine that physical media is, and the limitations brought about by restrictive licenses are a huge problem for libraries.

 CT:  For me, limitations to sharing and reusing ebook content constitute the largest roadblocks to wide adoption of ebooks in academic libraries, either for textbooks or in research.  At my library, we try to buy an electronic copy wherever we can, as these work best to serve our students and faculty who participate at a distance or online.

It's simply not as easy to print or share parts of an ebook (depending on the platform) as it is to print or share a single journal article or most information on the web.  Industry-wide, I am disappointed by the lack of business models that enable libraries to provide ebook content on popular ereaders.  The traditional role of libraries as provider to those who can't afford their own access is being ignored in this arena.  It's forced libraries to walk a fine line with digital content vendors like Amazon, providing readers and content to patrons in spite of Terms of Service that do not allow for it.

SP: What were some important "takeaways" or "a-ha moments" you had during the summit? 

KS: One of my favorite themes was the idea that the library can become the nexus of community-generated content. We've seen that idea floated around library circles for a long time, but if everyone, including the library, is publishing electronically, the bar for entry gets a little lower. Publishing a paper chapbook of teen poetry can be a huge amount of work for an understaffed, underfunded library. But making teen poetry available to everyone's ereaders electronically seems more feasible. I was struck by Eli Neiberger's thoughts about "dead" technologies that still exist today and how things like candles have changed from daily necessities to an almost luxury item with special uses. I kept thinking about apps like Hipstamatic that imitate old and damaged photographs. Technology isn't as linear as we tend to think - outmoded technologies like horses and sepia-tones photographs have new lives. Riding a horse isn't so much a method of transportation as a sport and it's impossible to find a digital camera that doesn't have a "sepia" mode. Libraries have to keep carving out their niche, but that's better than waiting to see what publishers and Amazon decide for us. 

JG:  All of Eli's examples of technological advances and cultural reimagining lit up all the right parts of my brain. Just a great set of examples that show why libraries need to be paying a lot of attention to these issues.