or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Tech Trends from MLA2010

   April 29th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Locked BikeI was at MLA2010 yesterday and participated in a panel discussion of Top Tech Trends (it was good, and if I find the other talks online I'll link to them). The two trends I chose aren't exactly new, but are two things I think will have an impact at the reference desk. They deal with ownership of the resources we offer to the public.

[note: this post might not be news to anyone, but the links from which I drew my information are worth reading]

Trend One: Subscription Databases
This has been a pretty happy segment of the library world for a long time, and libraries probably are familiar and comfortable with subscribing to and offering this kind of content. But in the last couple years, new exclusive deals signed between publishers and database vendors has limited access to many popular periodicals (this also happened last year with Consumer Reports).

EBSCO was the focus of much criticism, but Library Journal reports that the publishers are also interested in exclusive contracts. I don't mean to vilify them, because businesses will always act in their own self-interest. But I couldn't tell what bothered me more: loss of access to these periodicals, or corporate press releases [pdf] saying these contracts were in libraries' best interest - there is a difference between "all libraries" and "libraries that are our customers," which is a distinction database vendors don't seem to make.

We non-customers can't afford to keep buying more and more subscriptions because these exclusive deals demand it, so our patrons lose out. The bottom line is that it took resources away from many libraries, and I'm sure this isn't the end of it.

Trend Two: Ebooks
People might be sick of hearing about ebooks* already. However, since it contains the word "books," there is a natural expectation for libraries to offer them, so you can either jump or be dragged into this discussion.

The problematic trend is that the "e" part of ebooks makes them an entirely different animal from print books. Lots of people are trying to figure out how libraries can offer them to patrons, but ebooks have the potential to drastically change the publishing industry (including a power struggle within the distribution chain), and there's no nice model right now that seems to include libraries.

Another problem (for libraries) is that the two most talk-about ebooks readers (the Kindle and the iPad) are also the most restrictive. Like publishers and database vendors, Amazon and Apple are companies acting in their own self-interest, and what they're interested in is sales. Their tactic to maximize their sales is to control where the customers can get ebooks - which excludes libraries.

At least right now: the same thing was true with the iPod and Overdrive audiobooks - when we initially signed up with Overdrive, they did not work on the iPod (which is what all of our patrons had). Eventually Apple relented, so I'm hopeful they'll also eventually open up the iPad to outside ebook sources.

However, there is a case to be made that the iPad is not designed for reading anyway.

Statistics for the Future
Ebooks are popular, but right now they only account for 2-5% of overall book sales. That seems small, but library sales are about 4%. Ebook sales will definitely grow, whereas library sales probably will not. Since the future of ebooks will hinge on decisions made by businesses, libraries will need to speak up to make sure we have a role in this market.

Bonus Trend: HTML5
Something I forgot to mention in my talk also related to the iPad: watching videos online using Flash might be a thing of the past, because the iPad does not support Flash (per Steve Jobs). Instead, the iPad is looking to HTML5, and so is Google. The most obvious impact will be in Flash-based like Youtube and Hulu, but it's worth reading about HTML5 to get an idea of what the web might look like in the next few years.


*I don't know if there is an official style guide for these things, but I decided to always spell "ebooks" the same way I spell "email." If it starts a sentence the first letter gets capitalized, but otherwise it's always all in lowercase, as opposed to eBooks, e-books, etc.

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