The Role of Social Media for Libraries, Part II

I first encountered Heather Backman while tweeting about my personal experience with the Howe Library. Heather is the Programming, Public Relations and Outreach Coordinator for Howe Library in Hanover, NH. She was hired by Howe in October 2010 and part of her job entails handling the library’s publicity and social media outreach activities. Prior to her arrival at Howe, she earned a B.A. and M.A. in English literature from Stanford University and a M.S. in Information from the University of Michigan. She blogs– and you should read it. Catch the first segment of my interview with Heather here.

She discusses here how technology such as e-books affected the library.

In one sense, e-books have changed very little about what libraries do or how we do it; they just allow us to deliver a basic library service in a different medium. Some people have said that e-books are “killing” the printed book or that they spell the end of libraries, but that hasn’t been my experience. To my mind, the e-book is not “killing” the printed book, just supplementing it. We are still buying physical books in large quantities and I expect that we will continue to do so for a long time. I would go so far as to say that I doubt the physical book will ever completely go away. Even if it does, libraries are more about information-sharing than about lending physical items; handling e-books may mean changes in some of our procedures but I don’t think that libraries will cease to exist when the e-book predominates.

E-books have, however, also been what I’ve seen people refer to as a “disruptive influence.” This doesn’t mean that their impact has been negative, but just that they’ve shaken things up in the library world, in both good ways and bad.

E-books have created a whole new area of demand for libraries. In many ways this has been a boon because it has enabled us to provide technologically up-to-date services to a segment of the population who may not have used libraries before. It’s great for customer relations when we can offer people a service that they want but may not expect to find at a library – and it’s clear that people want e-book lending and troubleshooting assistance. Currently, we offer e-books and audiobooks for download via a service called Overdrive, which we subscribe to as part of a statewide consortium. It is used almost to the point of straining the system; most of the books are checked out at any given time, and we get very frequent questions on how to use the service. We offered a class on using Overdrive as a test for patron interest and had 40 in attendance, which is pretty good for this kind of program at Howe Library.

The popularity of e-book lending also raises some complex questions for libraries. For instance, it necessitates that we reconsider how we allocate our budgets. How much should we take away from book purchases to fund e-book purchases? This is tricky because there are at least as many of our patrons who still don’t use e-readers as there are patrons who are enthusiastic e-book readers. Physical books work for everyone; e-books are only usable for a specific segment of our user base. The issue becomes especially difficult because we can’t always get the same books in physical and electronic format. As of this writing, out of the “big six” publishers (Random House, HarperCollins, Penguin, Hachette, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster) only Random House allows libraries to lend e-books with no restrictions (learn more here). HarperCollins will sell e-books to libraries but requires us to re-purchase a book after it has been lent 26 times. Penguin recently announced that it would not be selling any new titles to libraries, and for a while, older Penguin titles that we had already purchased were unavailable for lending. (Actually, between the time I wrote that sentence and the time I’m editing it, they announced that they are pulling out of Overdrive altogether. A good basic summary of the situation is here.). Hachette, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster also won’t sell to us. This aspect of the situation is, to put it mildly, frustrating. We want to give our patrons what they’re asking for but in many cases we just can’t. For instance, if you want to read the new Steve Jobs biography, which is published by Simon & Schuster, you’re stuck with the paper format if you want to get it from a library and/or if you don’t have the money to buy the e-book yourself.

Amazon adds even more complexity. For a long time, the company would not make Kindles compatible with Overdrive. It was a big deal when they finally decided to allow library lending of Kindle books, but the launch of that functionality was very quickly overshadowed by Amazon’s launch of its own separate Kindle lending program. And Amazon’s involvement is exacerbating the issues with other publishers. Amazon is radically changing the face of publishing in ways that are not necessarily beneficial for the publishing ecosystem. Now it’s launched its own publishing house, making it a competitor with other publishers at the same time as it is a vital distributor for them. I think that this makes the publishing houses even warier of participating in anything Amazon is involved with, and that includes library e-book lending.

Librarians and publishers are at least trying to talk to each other but it doesn’t seem as though much progress is being made yet. With the most recent news from Penguin, it’s hard to be optimistic right now. Although publishers have legitimate concerns about how they are going to make money in the world of e-books, I honestly believe that they are shooting themselves in the foot by not working with libraries, and causing a good deal of collateral damage in the process. It’s frustrating to see libraries get bad PR (“I can’t get such-and-such e-book from my local library” can feed into stronger perceptions of public libraries as obsolescent in the Internet age) due to factors out of their control.

On the other hand, there are rays of light. Many patrons are impressed that they can get e-books from their local library at all; it does help us to show that we are more “with the times” than some people who haven’t set foot in a library for years might expect. And we are evidently still able to provide reading material that our patrons want and enjoy, judging by the heavy use of the e-books that we are able to lend.

Lisa Chau has been involved  with Web 2.0 since graduate school at Dartmouth College, where she completed an independent study on blogging. She was subsequently highlighted as a woman blogger in Wellesley Magazine, published by her alma mater. Since 2009, Lisa has worked as an Assistant Director at the Tuck School of Business. In 2012, she launched GothamGreen212 to pursue social media strategy projects. You can follow her on Twitter.