Does Your Local Library Deserve to Survive?

Come on a hypothetical journey with me. Imagine a future where ebooks are the dominant format of books. It’s a world many people don’t think will ever exist. Boomerang’s own Aimee Burton is one of them (I’ve challenged her to a blargument, but until she picks up the gauntlet I threw down this will just have to be hypothetical). But let’s just imagine dead tree books are now the poor cousin of ebooks. Kind of like CDs already are to MP3s. In this world, there are still rabid collectors out there who buy every antique Stephenie Meyer out there, but for the most part, most people do their book reading electronically. In this world is your local library something you want your tax money spent on?

Before the mouth-breather with the orthopaedic shoes starts throwing the kids’ books around in the quiet corner, just think about it. I love local libraries. I love how empty they are. I love how many books are there. I love the crazy old cat lady who works there two out of every four days. But in the world I’ve just mentioned, what role does a local library have that cannot be fulfilled by every person’s internet connection in their own home?

The answer, at least for now, seems to be free access. Try as they might (read: they are not trying) the publishing industry is yet to come up with a way to make the full range of ebooks that are out there commercially available to government subsidised libraries. John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan US, recently described libraries in the digital age as a “thorny problem”. As the excellent Eric Hellman paraphrases:

In the past, getting a book from libraries has had a tremendous amount of friction. You have to go to the library, maybe the book has been checked out and you have to come back another time. If it’s a popular book, maybe it gets lent ten times, there’s a lot of wear and tear, and the library will then put in a reorder. With ebooks, you sit on your couch in your living room and go to the library website, see if the library has it, maybe you check libraries in three other states. You get the book, read it, return it and get another, all without paying a thing.

It’s hard to see a sound business reason why a publisher would ever want a workable system for library ebooks. And yet, as it stands, it’s up to publishing companies to come up with a solution to this problem. Ultimately, however, when you look at the depth and breadth of knowledge available for free on the internet nowadays, it’s hard to make an argument that every person needs free access to books. Many libraries are already shifting their focus away from merely being repositories of dead trees. Knowledge is no longer contained solely within paper covers. But, of course, knowledge was only one reason I used to go to libraries. Without my local library, there are a number of dodgy fantasy writers I never would have read.

So my questions today are these: Does your local library deserve to be saved? If so, how? If not, will you mourn the passing of the local library? If so, why? Share your library stories in the comments below.

Why the iPad is Not Going to Save Publishing

Today’s release of Apple’s iPad in the United States and the absolutely hysterical reaction to it is as good a time as any to take a moment and think about the impact of devices like the iPad on publishing.

As you may or may not know, many publishing companies, particularly in newsprint, are not faring well. Newspapers across the world lost billions of dollars in the last year – their worst result in recent memory, and the word is that it’s only going to get worse. Books are faring a little better, but publishing folk are looking askance at their newspaper buddies and getting worried. This fear is partially what fuels the distaste for ebooks in the first place.

But not everyone in publishing is a backwards-looking nostalgic with a Luddite agenda. Some of them are tragic optimists as well. In fact, many people in the book trade herald each new device as the ‘killer’ gadget, the one machine to save us all. People said it about the Kindle, they’ve been saying it about gadgets like Plastic Logic’s Que for years (it still hasn’t been released) and they said it about the Nook, until it turned out to be a steaming pile of fail.

There are also a lot of people like me, who believe – wrongly – that the killer device has not been released yet, but fervently hope that when it is all our problems will be solved.

The truth is that no single device is going to save publishing. Publishing of all kinds will save itself – or die trying. Just as with the digital music revolution and the average punter’s passion for music, there is still an overwhelming fervour out there for the written word in all its guises. We still buy millions upon millions of books, from huge bestsellers like Harry Potter or Twilight to stuff like The Slap. What all these purchases prove is that people still like to read books – content is king. At the moment, particularly in Australia, consumers simply do not have access to the electronic content.

I’m not trying to point fingers here; there are plenty of publishers who are putting off the inevitable when it comes to ebooks, and plenty out there doing great things (Allen & Unwin and Macmillan, I’m looking at you). Equally there are booksellers who have been on board with ebooks for years, and others that are doing nothing. There are also authors who have been on the digital bandwagon for years, and others who are still thinking about starting a MySpace page next year.

The point is that the future isn’t going to be any different because you drag your heels and moan about the smell of books. You’re just going to get left behind. The iPad isn’t going to save publishing either – it’s just a platform with great potential. If you have any ideas for how you want to read books (or make them) in the future, then educate yourself and start making demands now. Because whether you like it or not, things are going to change, but how it changes and into what is still up to us.