How can a library add ebooks, something with no physical existence, to its collection? And why would it?
I can answer the first question easily. Libraries, like everyone else, have to pay for ebooks. An ebook goes through the same process as any other library material.
- Someone decides to acquire it.
- The acquisitions department orders it from the publisher and pays for it.
- The cataloging department describes it and puts the description in the catalog.
- Once it’s in the catalog, the reference department can call patrons’ attention to it and the circulation department can check it out.
Of course, no one has to mark it, label it, or put it on the shelf. The difference between someone buying an ebook and borrowing it from the library is that the borrowed copy disappears from their ebook reader when the loan period expires.
Why do libraries acquire ebooks?
The question why is always more involved and complicated than the question how. One short answer is that the library collects ebooks for the same reason it collects anything else: having selected ebooks in its collection enables the library to fulfill its mission to its public (whether that be the general public, an academic community, or a corporation)
Selection of appropriate materials only begins to describe how a library fulfills its mission. For another aspect, libraries have long led society in the adoption of new technology.
While much of society is trying to decide if some new technological marvel will catch on, libraries are typically acquiring it, learning how to demonstrate how to use it, and making it available. That means that libraries often wind up with formats that don’t catch on and materials that can only be used on machines that were only on the market a brief time.
Most libraries have long since discarded such losers as U-Matic or Betamax video tapes, 8-track players, the kind of laser discs that looked like LPs, etc. But don’t be surprised to find libraries who have kept their collections and continue to maintain their machines. After all, some people still want that content and are willing to travel to distant libraries to use it.
Something of the kind is currently happening with ebook readers. Amazon’s Kindle became the first commercially successful one. Apple and Barnes & Noble, among others, challenged Amazon with their own formats.
The various players in the ebook business struggle to protect their turf. The companies that make the content and those that make the readers argue over licensing, pricing, royalties, and copyright protection. In the process they have introduced something called Digital Rights Management (DRM).
What publishers call Digital Rights Management, readers experience as Digital Restrictions Management. In other words, DRM exists to protect publishers and manufactures of ebook readers from readers who want to move their collection of ebooks from, say, an old Kindle to a new Nook.
DRM is not limited to the book business. Music, movies, mobil phones, apps on various devices, and games are all subject to some kind of digital lockdown.
But while various aspects of the entertainment industry cling to DRM and other similar restrictions as a means of protecting their livelihoods and, according to their rhetoric, that of authors and creators, libraries continue to maintain their commitment to openness and sharing.
Of course, before digital media came into existence, there could be no DRM. So which is better for protecting authors’ livelihoods? The new world of DRM or the old way of readers sharing books with each other?
Libraryland, with its commitment to openness and its long institutional memory, knows that word of mouth has long led to increased sales of books. Someone wants a recommendation of what to read and asks either a knowledgeable book store clerk or a readers’ advisory librarian. Someone borrows a book, either from the library or from a friend and then wants his own copy.
Amazon has an algorithm to accomplish the same thing. Whatever you buy results in another screen that notify what other people who bought the same thing also bought.
Some ebook publishers are already catching on that their customers don’t like DRM. Some ebook publishers are already issuing new titles without it. It will take longer for a majority of publishers to move in the same direction. It will probably be much longer before manufacturers of ebook readers will allow cross-platform sharing.
But that’s another reason for libraries to own and lend ebooks. They provide ways of making it possible to share while so much of industry is afraid of it.