Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 Summary: Libraries are Still Screwed

In mathematics, catastrophe theory is the study of nonlinear dynamical systems which exhibit points or curves of singularity. The behavior of systems near such points is characterized by sudden and dramatic changes resulting from even very small perturbations. The simplest sort of catastrophe is the fold catastrophe.

When a fold catastrophe occurs, a system that was formerly characterized by a single stable point evolves to a system with no stability. The point where stability disappears is known as the tipping point.

One of my goals for this past year was to raise awareness of the tipping point for libraries that will accompany the obsolescence of the print book. In January, I noted that Hal Varian's equation describing the economic value of libraries also predicts that libraries of the current sort won't exist for ebooks.

In March, I put the question directly to John Sargent, Macmillan's CEO. His response, that ebooks in libraries were a "thorny problem" got quite a bit of notice. Unfortunately, the big trade publishers have yet to actually do much to address the thorns.

In May, I was pleased that the editors of Library Journal were putting together an "eBook Summit" virtual meeting to address some of these issues, and even more pleased to be invited to write a series of articles to help frame issues for the Summit. The event ended up being titled ebooks: Libraries at the Tipping Point. For me, the highlight of the summit was Eli Neiburger's talk on How eBooks Impact Libraries. This talk is destined to be known forever as the "Libraries are Screwed" talk, and if you've not viewed it I urge you to do so forthwith.

Several other contributions raising awareness of the library-ebook catastrophe are worth noting. Emily Williams' commentary on Eli's talk is worth reading and her attention to the issue has been consistent. Library Journal's Heather McCormack is another persistent voice- I particularly loved the story she told in a column written for O'Reilly Radar. Tim Spalding's post on "Why are you for killing libraries is another favorite.

So at the end of the year, what have we accomplished? One disappointment for me was that although Library Journal's eBook Summit was quite popular with librarians, it appears that very few publishers took notice. On the rare occasions when publishers took notice of the role libraries could play in the ebook future, they tended to be depressingly reactionary, such as when the UK's Publishers Association set out their plan to marginalize libraries while apparently thinking they were boosting them.

Similarly, Amazon announced yesterday the addition of a lending feature for the Kindle. This feature seems designed to compete with a similar feature in the Nook, but nowhere in the announcement is there any mention of libraries as being anything other than the books on a user's Kindle.

Meanwhile, adoption of ebooks and ebook readers has accelerated. Amazon announced that the third-generation Kindle is the bestselling product in Amazon's history. Barnes&Noble fired back, reporting that the NOOKcolor is the best selling product in its history. In comparison, this month's announcement by Overdrive that it (finally!) has released apps for reading its library ebooks on Android devices and iPhone seems a bit too-little-too-late. (sorry, no iPad version!).

Perhaps the time is over for raising awareness about the catastrophic future of libraries. In 2011, let's build things that change the system dynamics.


  1. Thanks for this, Eric, and particularly for posting the "Libraries are screwed" talk, which I'd not seen before. There's not much there to argue with, is there? Very little wiggle-room. I am gradually (and since I got my Kindle, not so gradually) coming to the conclusion that libraries as we know them ARE doomed, but that that's not such a disaster as it may seem, because the reason is that their mission is accomplished.

  2. I take issue with the notion that UK publishers are being reactionary. Yes, it sounds silly to restrict access, but is it really?

    As I've argued elsewhere, there's just no way to make easy and cheap digital lending work for content creators(1). If getting digital material from a library is as easy as getting it from Amazon or Google, nobody is going to use Amazon or Google. Free and easy wins over paid and easy every day.

    The trick is that free and hard doesn't always win over paid and easy. By requiring patrons to come into the library to get digital content, publishers impose a classic opportunity cost. Such impositions are a common technique in price discrimination.

    The goal of price discrimination is to get everyone to pay what they're willing to pay--to make the rich person pay full price, but still hoover up the poor person's pennies. Since you can't ask people what they're willing to pay, you have to do something indirect. The classic way is to add some effort factor--some hurdle that only the most motivated with leap through.

    When you give people the opportunity to trade effort for savings, the rich people--or anyway the "price insensitive" people--go ahead and pay full price, and the price sensitive, who wouldn't but the product at full price, put the effort in and pay less. Coupons, promotions and sales are the classic means. In this case the hurdle is the extra effort going into the library entails. People who want the book now will get it now, from home. People willing to trade time and effort for money will go into the library.

    The upshot of this is clear. We must recognize that "free and easy" access to digital content is not only not going to happen, it is the enemy of universal access. If librarians insist that the digital content be available to all their patrons wherever they are, they will lose that which I believe is more important still--the chance to make it available at all.

    1. I recommend dropping "publishers" in all these discussions. Authors have the same incentives, and are no more inclined to put library holes in their profit buckets than anyone else. It is more palatable in certain quarters to believe that only irrational corporations would behave as publishers have behaved. Unfortunately, they have behaved rationally--in their and their authors' best interests.

  3. I think everyone should read Tim's comment, because it's important to understand the points.

    By "reactionary" I mean that the UK PA's declaration is oriented towards preserving some semblance of the status quo. I agree that that's a perfectly reasonable thing for them to do, and it's great that there's a nascent awareness that libraries might have some sort of role. But carried to its logical conclusion, the notion that libraries will be useful primarily as providers of inconvenience in service of ebook market segmentation will be hard for many to swallow. And it's not much of a business model for the libraries. So, "libraries are still screwed".

  4. "carried to its logical conclusion, the notion that libraries will be useful primarily as providers of inconvenience in service of ebook market segmentation will be hard for many to swallow "

    I agree. But they're wrong. They've been mislead into the conception of the library as a neutral service-points for arbitrary demands, and away from an earlier and more noble conception that favored access to the needy and the thirsty.

    I would hate to see libraries wither in any way. But I can live with a future where well-off people, who gladly shell for other entertainment and won't come into the library building, pay full price for their casual reading. But I can't live in a future where the truly needy--both the poor and those who turn to libraries for the stuff only libraries will ever buy--are out of luck.

    You want my goals?

    1. Focus on preserving what libraries do best, and do uniquely. Delivering the new hot novel, movie or music to your home computer is not one of those things.

    2. Focus on providing access to ebooks however you can--up to an including preventing ebooks from being "checked out" at all! (If the library of the future gives you access to everything, but you can't leave the building, so be it.)

    3. And don't junk the books. Falling as they do under a much more favorable legal structure, books are libraries' friend. Stop ignoring and disrespecting their value to grasp at the impossible dream of being a free ebook store.


  5. A "library of the future [that] gives you access to everything, but you can't leave the building" is what I imagined might emerge from a convocation of smart librarians and smart rightsholders. It's a bit of a leap for both parties, though. At this point the Google Books Settlement, and to a lesser extent, Hathitrust, are the only things likely to happen in that direction.

    I fear that too many libraries will ask what they uniquely do best and answer "cataloguing".

    I fear that not junking books could fall victim to budget cutting.

  6. Eric, please tell me you're joking. An electronic library that you have to physically visit in order to see the books is the dumbest kind of dumb, and most certainly not what you're going to get when smart anyone meets smart anyone else. The idea would be funny if it wasn't so iniquitous.

    Like everyone else, I don't know how the library of ten or twenty years' time is going to work. But I do know how it's NOT going to work: no solution based on imposing an artificial scarcity of copies will work. It just won't.

  7. Mike, any "solution" can only be based on a generally accepted social contract. I believe a location-based social contract could work; it wouldn't be based on a "scarcity of copies". Relying on technological measures to enforce "artificial scarcity of copies" will never work, but building social consensus around a compromise-based solution is possible if it is widely seen as being fair to all parties. My lament is that so little progress has been made towards reaching any sort of informed social consensus around how to (or even whether to) bring libraries into an ebook future.

  8. Here's why you can never have a "solution" based on physical location: because anyone who is not personally involved in the solution will instantly see that it's mindbendingly stupid. It takes a long-term library denizen such as you or I to even entertain such an idea. All my friends' children who discuss stuff on Facebook would laugh the notion out of court, if they bothered paying attention to it at all; and they are the next decade's university students, and the decade after that's information professionals.

    "Information wants to be free" isn't just a snappy soundbite, it's an unavoidable reality. Or maybe you could better state it was "information flows freewards". It's an availability ratchet. Once any given digital artifact is available at freeness level x, it can never be reduced to level x-1; once DRM has been broken once for a given movie or book, it's broken forever. And it will be broken for every artifact that people care about. Anyone who doubts this has not spent much time playing with the Pirate Bay or IsoHunt search engines.

    I'm saying that this is good, or that it's bad; only that it's true. If we want to continue to have business models that allow us to make a living in libraries, then we need to come up with models that take that fact into account. Otherwise we're like shire-horse breeders pretending that there's no such thing as tractors.

    All of this is not necessarily bad news for you personally, Eric, since your "ungluing" model is based on removing restrictions from digital media. Given a reasonable way to do it, I think most people would rather pay (a reasonably amount) to get unrestricted digital media legitimately, which bodes well for the Ungluing model. But when the option isn't available (or when it's prohibitively expensive), we do ourselves no favours by pretending that the world will accept the sort of restrictions we're talking about here. If they can't buy an unrestricted copy at a decent price, they'll pirate it for free.

  9. Mike, Take a look at the ebook sales data from IDPF. Also remember the rest of the saying: "information also wants to be expensive". I don't think these sales are occurring because the ebooks aren't available for free somewhere. I think that a majority of consumers are accepting the social convention of supporting book production via book purchases.

  10. Without public libraries, those without money will have no access to books or to newspapers. Ebooks are priced, online newspapers (such as the Times) are priced. Information may want to be free but it's not going to be.

    So, if society accepts that people should have free access to information as it has done in the past, there is still a place for libraries in some shape or form. Of course, society may not accept this - getting people to pay for things so one's taxes can be lower seems to be a really popular view now.

    It is the job of librarians to promote themselves and the value of free information so as to secure the world in which we wish to live in. Of course, librarians are truly terrible at this and there a lot of vested interests against them ... so, perhaps, we're still... well, screwed.

  11. Ian, if libraries try to promote themselves as providers of books and newspapers to those without money, they'll need to be prepared to show that they are an effective and efficient means of doing that. For example, if the expenditures on public libraries in the US were redirected to individual licenses, every family of 4 in the country could get 16 ebooks a year. Or a newspaper subscription. I'm not suggesting that would be a good idea, but libraries short-sell self-advocacy at their peril.

  12. I concur with Mike's "mission accomplished." Let's re-invest this collectively massive overhead (of traditional-libraries-turned-computer-labs) in more productive ways.

  13. a huge issue that is very often over looked is that people with reading (vision, neurological, learning, etc.) issues still cannot utilize screen reading software on these e-book readers, many still don't have proper zoom and other text enhancement options either -- at least at a library there are screen readers and audio books and people (librarians) to help folks with disabilities, vision or otherwise, utilize books


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