E-book lending and libraries

I’m curious what folks here think about the growing popularity of public libraries lending out e-books.

On one hand I’ve heard people gush about how much their reading is enabled by it, and how especially it let’s them read books they otherwise wouldn’t have.

On the other hand, I just read Robin Sloan’s latest newsletter in which he writes

However, there’s something that feels depressing to me about the case of, say, a Berkeley Public Library patron who, five years ago, moved to San Jose and hasn’t visited the BPL in person since, but who avidly borrows e-books every week. This is a new kind of “ghost patron” who never “pays into” the library in the same way that every in-person patron does: with their presence! The rustle of their jacket, the creak of their chair, the beep of the book-scanner when they use it, the overall murmur of their humanity —taken all together, these contributions are what give any public place the feeling of vitality and safety. These are real things, not imaginary. People make a library as surely as books do.

Overall this whole systems just seems deeply wierd. The whole system is a artificial scarcity layer that’s ostensibly designed to promote books and those who make them, but it’s very hacked together.

I think Sloan’s point, that book lending doesn’t contribute to the physical location and community of libraries is true, but I also think that e-book lending shouldn’t be tied to a physical location. The worst evolution of this idea ends up looking like spotify for books (which I think Amazon has going), but surely there’s some way we can do better.

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Great topic. Honestly I’m not sure about my reaction. I feel like a bad library patron b/c I rarely check out books anymore, but I’m sitting in a library right now (downtown LA) and it’s really great! Really interesting to think about the simple act of presence as important contribution / participation in the library ecosystem.

I agree I think ebook lending always has been and maybe always will be kind of weird. One reaction I have is “what’s the point?” — that is, hardly seems worthwhile as a mode of engaging with libraries — but I realize that comes from a place of a lot of privilege. To Robin Sloan’s point, a library isn’t just about book lending, it’s about community space, but also makes sense that people should be free to use just one or the other of those aspects. (Can a library be “unbundled”? Is picking and choosing how to engage with a library somehow unfair? Is that a bad thing?)

A lot of this seems entangled with inherent tensions between the economics of how books are made and distributed, and the need for open, equitable access. The Macmillan policy thing Robin mentions is one weird artifact of that and I can’t really tell if it’s good or bad or (probably) neither, just an easy thing to latch onto because of how it illuminates larger disconnects.

I do think another interesting thing he mentions in that newsletter is how ebook lending seems to prioritize recent books; most books don’t even exist as ebooks, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to worry about making sure dozens of copies of the latest bestseller are available when the same resources could bring readers a wider selection of other books. (Or maybe it does? Librarians of course spend a lot of time grappling with these questions and balancing some idealized notion of library mission with delivering what patrons are actually asking for! No single clear answer…)

All of my favorite discoveries at the Berkeley Public Library have been books that are two years old, or five, or twenty. I get it: not everyone is like me. There are surely some library patrons who focus (almost exclusively?) on the new arrival shelf, snatching up the freshly-published titles as soon as they arrive. Should these patrons determine the library’s priorities, though? Libraries are—or can be—powerfully atemporal : setting material from decades ago up alongside material from months ago and making it all seem equally appealing, even equally urgent .

Given how many competing priorities and functions we look to libraries to fill, on some level it’s a miracle they work as well as they do!

Back to ebooks — I like his final point that we seem to be stuck at a kind of local maximum with the ebook landscape and that better possible futures are out there but may require getting through some experimentation and uncertainty. Very hard to overcome the gravity well of Amazon but important to try. Things like guerrilla libraries, underground / independent ebook / PDF archives etc. seem like important grounds for experimentation here. Ditto new tools for notes, highlights, sharing book info…

We should start a blogchain around weird economics of books / reading; I feel like there are similarly interesting thorny questions about bookstores too…lots of possibilities but lots of uncertainty about what might work. I’m writing this on my phone at the moment so kinda rambly but I’d like to think / talk about this stuff more!

I am a ghost patron at the BPL for sure–LOVE borrowing ebooks and almost never go in person. But without ebook borrowing, I wouldn’t be going to the BPL in person anyway, so I feel like it’s still a net win for the library system for them to have ebook lending? All the description about the physical sensation of the library feels like it’s about something else–not information access, but connection to a community and public space, which is a completely unrelated topic to books IMO. (It also reminds me of the whole “I like physical books because they smell good” sentiment…which doesn’t really feel like it’s about reading at all.)

If we want to create a vibrant public space in a library setting, I think there are a lot of other programs that libraries can and do offer that aren’t related to reading. Public lectures, gallery shows, cafes, classes, makerspaces, and coworking space settings all come to mind.

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