Librarians head to Seattle to face challenges of a digital future

The American Library Association's 2013 Midwinter Conference is underway in Seattle. Photo: Caroline Kennedy to speak at Librarian show in Seattle

DOTHAN, AL, January 25, 2013 — They won’t admit it, but librarians love a party and there is a big one going on in Seattle this weekend. The American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Conference is underway in the Emerald City and a big topic on everyone’s mind is how to adapt to the digital age.

There will be the usual sessions on how to shush noisy patrons, what to do about homeless people sleeping in the reading areas, and using drones to track down overdue books. There will also be an ungodly number of exhibitors hawking their wares, an endless stream of “meet the author” sessions and a talk by Caroline Kennedy.

The real activity in the world of public libraries right now is not what you might see on the exhibit floor, but the growing buzz among librarians about e-book lending, internet services and how much space to dedicate to computer terminals. Macmillan just announced it finally is offering an e-book program for libraries, leaving Simon & Schuster as the only major publishing house still without a digital library offering.

There are just over 9,000 public libraries in America, 120,000 if you include special, school and government libraries. All of them are facing the issue of e-book costs and how many times they may be loaned out to patrons. Unlike print books, e-books come with restrictions.

Pew Research Center just released a study on public library services that is sure to help drive librarians further to the edge. They report that library patrons want more digital services, but please don’t cut back on offering print books. 80% of Americans say that borrowing books from a library is “very important,” and an equal number agree that reference librarians are still needed.

That is good news for any librarians wondering about their jobs this year. However, the study shows that 77% of Americans also want free access to computers and the internet at the library, and 53% would like a wider selection of e-books.

73% of public library patrons say they go there to browse and borrow print books. Half of them get help from a librarian. 66% say they go to a library to use the internet for a variety of activities ranging from research to checking email to just browsing for fun. Digital access is especially important to African-Americans and Hispanics.

Bookshelves take space. Computer stations take space. What’s a poor librarian to do? Allocation of floor space, never before a big topic at library schools, is now something else public libraries have to cope with. The cost of computer equipment is fairly significant as well.

Publishers have not been very helpful in all this. When e-books first arrived on the scene only a handful of big publishers had any idea how to produce them, but they quickly got into the swing of things and started trying to cut the pie into slices before it was fully baked. There is a renewed debate over e-book pricing that is too lengthy to get into here, but basically prices are creeping up and up.  Publishers are in denial that production costs for digital are significantly lower than for print. Thanks guys.

On top of that, since e-books don’t wear out like print books, there has been a lot of debate over how many times they can be used by a library. The ALA argues that libraries only have to buy a print book once and can use it forever, so why should they be restricted to less than two dozen loan-outs before having to pay for it again? Um, because some people are greedy?

The issue of migrating from print to digital, even for experienced librarians, is not an easy one to deal with. Our local librarians are the nicest, most helpful bunch of people you could ever meet. Just don’t bring up detailed technical questions about how to access digital editions and online services. They are plenty savvy and know the answers, but they are frustrated that the reference desk is becoming more and more a technical support center. Aside from being a misuse of a reference librarian’s hard-earned skills, technical issues are difficult to explain to the town council when requesting budget funds each year.

Another controversial topic, one that seems to only get mentioned in hushed tones in dark corners these days, is outsourcing library services to private companies. This started some time ago but has received renewed attention as counties, cities and towns face budget shortfalls due to the economy.

Outsourced private services can range from handling catalogues to operating an entire library, books and all. Librarians, who currently number just over 150,000 in the US, are understandably not huge fans of this idea. Also, many taxpayers are not happy with the idea of using taxes to run for-profit services. It’s complicated.

As with many other things in modern America, taxpayers are having to make tough choices about services they want versus what they are willing to pay for. The Pew study shows that people still regard libraries as important to their communities, and librarians themselves have more than justified their jobs over time. While digital “stuff” is cool and all that, there is still a human factor that can’t be overlooked when it comes to books and information.

I hope all the librarians who made it to Seattle this weekend have a great time and get all the free stuff they can from exhibitors. It may be the last time publishers give them anything free for quite some time.

 (Be sure to get The Backstory and more at Rick’s author blog


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Rick Townley

Rick Townley was a bookseller before switching to electronic publishing with The New York Times, Reuters, Grolier and others. He is the author of a humor book, For Boomers Only – Exploring Life in the New Millennium, a supernatural novel, Stepping Out of Time, and numerous short stories. In addition to contributing to the Washington Times Communities, Rick is working on a fiction series called Stigma and resides in southern Alabama with his 7-year-old granddaughter, Chloe.


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