The 16th annual Internet Librarian conference recently concluded in Monterey, Calif. More than 1,000 registrants and 215 speakers tackled the topicof Transformational Power of Internet Librarians. While the sessions ranged from accessibility of digital content to web analytics, two themes took center stage: the future role of libraries and the reality of ebooks. As it turns out, some would assert that the future role of libraries depends upon the ultimate impact of ebooks.
Role of Libraries
Depending upon whom you ask, libraries should serve as a platform for networking, return to their core competency as the keeper of print books, or launch new products and services as the enabler of content creation.
In the opening keynote address, David Weinberger advocated for the library as a platform for people, ideas, and works delivered through tools and services. Weinberger is senior researcher, Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, co-director, Harvard Innovation Lab, and author of Too Big to Know. He says, rather than attempting to collect knowledge in the form of published works, librarians can advance knowledge through public learning, generous sharing, and the power of iteration. Weinberger used the experience of software developers as an example of fast, efficient, and effective learning as they collaborate through tutorials, versioning, and social connections to tweak and improve programs. He posited that libraries can serve as a networking platform that “provides the resources that let others create and flourish.”
On the other hand, Day 3 keynoter Steve Coffman, vice president at LSSI and author of the recent Searcher article “The Decline and Fall of the Library Empire,” took a decidedly different tack. The unique product that librarians and libraries deliver was, is, and will remain the printed book. Coffman points out that while libraries offer numerous other products and services including gadgets (circulating iPads, for instance), gadget troubleshooting, convening communities, publishing, and facilitating creativity, “millions of other knowledge workers and professions all over the world” share these roles. Coffman suggests that librarians stop “frittering away our limited resources on dozens and even 100s of different initiatives” and embrace the printed book. Existing assets include two billion books, 20,000 buildings, and more than 1.6 billion people “coming through our doors each year.” Librarians need to reduce the cost of distributing printed books by using existing technology and resources—ONiX for cataloging, Amazon for interlibrary loan, and networked libraries for virtual reference. Libraries and librarians should consider book selling and deliver aggregation, curation, preservation, and reference services for electronic as well as print formats.
More than one speaker at Internet Librarian 2012 begged to differ with Coffman’s view, seeing a range of alternative futures for libraries and librarians. “Enabler of content creation” appeared to have widespread support, and this view was hammered home in the closing keynote on Wednesday afternoon where Jaap van de Geer said, “We cannot save libraries by doing more of what we have done before, because the outcome will be the same … Media consumption is moving away from books.” Van de Geer, along with Erik Boekesteijn, represented the Delft Public Library (Netherlands). They sat on a panel with Paul Pival from the University of Calgary (Canada) and Jeff Wisniewski from the University of Pittsburgh. These presenters offered example after example of libraries providing space for content creation showing images of patronless book stacks and busy “maker spaces.” The Taylor Family Digital Library at Calgary provides touch tables in the café and creation spaces that include Mac Pros, a DJ mixing board, and editing suites. The Westport (CT) Public Library maker space offers a 3D printer and a resident engineer. McMaster University (Ontario, Canada) provides a gaming room that supports three academic programs. Assen Public Library (Netherlands) built and staffed a TV studio.
In a separate session, Donna Feddern of the Escondido (CA) Public Library described the LibraryYOU project. The library created a recording/editing studio in order to facilitate creation of videos and podcasts that feature local experts and oral histories. The Delft Public Library (Netherlands), acclaimed as one of 25 most modern libraries in the world, provides a wall of 21 screens where people can share their stories. The message conveyed at this closing keynote was that transforming the library space can force users to dismiss the book as the library’s brand.
Reality of Ebooks
The advent of ebooks has influenced what, how, and how much people read. Pretty much everyone can agree on that. Where this will go depends upon whom you ask.
Day 2 keynoter, Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, shared the latest findings of the project about libraries and their services. Pew research shows a rise in e-reading. Twenty-one percent of Americans have read an ebook in the last year while 68% had read a print book. Of those reading ebooks, 12% had borrowed an ebook from a library. Sixty-two percent of those who don’t borrow from the library are unaware that borrowing is an option. Rainie notes that “ebook borrowing has a foothold and an upside.”
Coffman, on the other hand, showed statistics from the R.R. Bowker Book Industry Study Group that seemed to show that the ebook adoption curve has flattened out this year.
Meanwhile, some conference goers don’t see a problem. The comments on Twitter reflect a certain ambivalence among attendees. “I don’t really get the whole print vs. ebooks thing. It’s all reading” (@waffles) and “I’m getting tired of the digital vs. physical object talk..As if these can’t peacefully coexist” (@eclasper).
In the meantime, public, academic, corporate, and nonprofit librarians dedicate countless hours to evaluating ebook options and comparing them to the print versions for price, availability, usability, user preference, and portability. Law librarian Erik Adams summarized the existing challenges in a session on ebook economics and trends: Technology is a problem, distribution stinks, and high prices discourage adoption.
In his keynote address, Rainie stated that librarians have the opportunity to participate in a “supply side revolution” and what they decide to build is what it’s going to be. “You’re on your own inventing the future.”