Published: Tuesday May 22, 2012 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday May 26, 2013 MYT 2:23:19 PM

The future of libraries

With the popularity of e-books on the rise, public libraries in the United States are contemplating a role change.

FOR centuries, libraries were places where documents and books were kept. They still are, but in most libraries today, books also exist in computer servers in digital form, ready to be borrowed by readers who will access them via mobile reading devices. Institutions such as the New York Public Library and Singapore National Library lend out e-books to patrons.

But e-books aren’t that new in libraries, says Sue Polanka, head of reference and instruction at Wright State University Libraries in the United States – they’ve had them for the last 15 years or so.

“Academic libraries have been buying e-books for years long before Overdrive (e-book distributors for libraries),” says Polanka.

She was in Kuala Lumpur recently to talk about how e-books are impacting libraries. Polanka is also a popular blogger. Her passion for libraries and e-books led her to create the blog No Shelf Required in 2008 at

At our interview, she goes on to explain that the e-content libraries stocked in the early days comprised mostly almanacs, journals and encyclopaedias. OverDrive ( was the first library vendor to offer more fiction content. And then e-book reading devices like the Barnes and Nobles’ Nook and Amazon’s Kindle went mass market and “things really went wild”, Polanka says.

It sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Instead of making that trek to the library, one just has to go online and download the book you want to read – for free. In a few seconds, the e-book will be in your mobile reading device, ready to be enjoyed....

But publishers, spooked by the prospect of piracy and dwindling sales of print books, have been hesitant to stock public libraries’ electronic shelves. Macmillan and Hachette, and Simon & Schuster refuse to sell e-books to libraries. Penguin used to, but abruptly stopped selling e-books to public libraries in February. In March, Random House tripled their e-book prices for library e-book distributors. Now, digital versions of Random House paperback titles can cost libraries as much as US$50 (RM152) each!

“Right now, HarperCollins is the only publisher (out of the six major international publishers) working with public libraries and even they have put on limitations. After an e-book goes out 26 times, the 27th time the library has to buy a new copy of it,” Polanka explains.

However, she does have some sympathy for the publishers’ position. “With academic content there’s a limited market – you’re going to only sell so many copies. With bestselling (fiction) titles there’s an unlimited market out there and if libraries have unlimited access ... I completely understand why they (the publishers) may be wary of that. They might lose a lot of sales,” she acknowledges.

Another reason for limiting e-books in this manner is to create “challenges” for the library patron. “Penguin said that a print exchange has a lot of ‘friction’ because the user has to get to a library, borrow the item, take it home and read it and then bring it back. There are two trips involved so they felt that there was ‘friction’.” Because e-books are downloaded without this “friction”, the publishers felt that there weren’t enough “challenges” for the reader, it seems.

Penguin should think again. It is actually not that easy to download an e-book from a public library. For example, there are 21 steps involved the very first time you do it if you use a Nook or a Sony e-reader, says Polanka.

“There is a study by Library Journal – an American journal that follows anything going on in libraries – which found that 23% of patrons were unsuccessful in downloading a library e-book because of a technological glitch,” she says.

Also, just because it’s an e-book, which technically means that there aren’t any limitations to how many copies there could be, doesn’t mean that it is immediately available.

According to a recent New York Times article (E-book borrowing, preceded by e-book waiting, April 11, 2012), patrons may end up on a waiting list hundreds of names long for popular e-book titles. This is because libraries are only allowed to lend one digital copy at a time – as if it is a physical book.

As a result, a lot of frustrated people leave without the content they want, says Polanka. “People expect digital content to be available now, they don’t want to wait for it.”

Ideally, there should be a system that allows patrons to download multiple digital copies at once. But many public libraries probably can’t afford to set up a system like that.

“Publishers say, ‘Well, if they don’t have to wait then they’re never going to be forced to go to the bookstore and buy it. Because that’s the whole idea, we want them to wait at the library,” she says.

But there could be a light at the end of the tunnel: Self-published e-books.

“Self-publishing is huge. It would be wonderful if public libraries could figure out a way to work directly with authors and to promote self-published authors without going through publishers.”

However, just as publishers fear for their existence, libraries too should be wary about their future.

“Many publishers are trying to sell direct to consumers now as a way to save themselves, and many libraries are very much against that. There’s a lot of e-book subscription services that are popping up too,” Polanka points out.

For example, launched its Amazon Prime service late last year allowing users to borrow one e-book a month. Then there are e-book lending services such as,, British-based, and US company

Could a day come when libraries actually disappear, to be replaced by e-book lending services, some of which charge fees?

“Many libraries are losing their funding because people are saying we don’t need them (libraries) – we can get it all online,” Polanka acknowledges.

This is why she feels that libraries have to make an effort to stay involved with e-books and other digital content. This calls for libraries to reinvent themselves, she says.

Even if e-books become so popular that print books become rare items, libraries are more than just their print books, says Polanka.

The brick and mortar library buildings can be turned into a place where the community come together to create and distribute content. “Yes, we move our print out but it’s not that we leave the place empty. We bring in the type of technology that will allow people to create content.”

For example, libraries can provide facilities and tools for authors to write e-books, or for bloggers to create podcasts, videos or other multimedia content. Public libraries can even be a place where a community can keep a record of their history.

Jamie LaRue, director of the Douglas County Libraries has suggested that public libraries hire reporters to keep a track of local news. As a lot of American city newspapers are closing – more and more people are getting their news online – this could be an opportunity for libraries to make use of skills going begging.

And instead of being adversaries, libraries and publishers can still work together to promote authors and titles.

“There could come a time when libraries are the only place where people can physically see a book before they buy it. That’s something we need to consider and we can play a bigger role in that too. Maybe we can be selling books too,” she says.

Polanka would love to see a future where content is available at no cost – and libraries should play a part in that, as libraries are based on the philosophy of open access.

“We are much better off contributing to people to have more content than picking individual titles from publishers that hold copyright and limit us. This open culture is what I hope the future will be.”

Tags / Keywords: Books, Lifestyle


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