Is the eBook, the end of the library?

My son loves books at the moment, and long may it continue. He’s a toddler, and it’s been fantastic to watch him discover the experience of turning pages, seeing and recognising pictures, and hearing his mum and me reading aloud.

As a result, our house has started to resemble the children’s section of an Amazon warehouse, and every time his family get the chance, he’s getting more books added to the collection – but that isn’t enough, and as a result, we’re making regular trips to the local lending library for the first time since I was a teenager.

As an adult, I can still find the odd book to borrow, but considering I tend to read fairly niche subjects, it’s far easier for me to find books online, either free via Creative Commons or the Public Domain, or bought via a number of retailers.

I haven’t checked to find library borrowing and attendance rates in the UK, but it’s hard to see how borrowing physical copies of books will continue in the next few years, and the younger readers are increasingly being exposed to touch screen devices at the ages of 3 or 4 in some cases. And they quickly know how those devices work and how to find more entertainment.

The problem with printed copies?

The big challenge is that any freely available book has been licensed to allow sharing, thus spreading without the need for a central collection of physical copies. Physical copies are bought as memento and to thank the author, gifts, and possibly for re-reading away from the screen – in all three cases, those require a permanent purchase rather than a loan.

And although the DRM-restricted sold copies could be adapted to allow lending for a set period of time, that would tend to be operated by a retailer, and there’s still no reason for a library. And their token offering of a handful of DVDs and CDs in an attempt to modernise doesn’t offer much how in the download era, or even the Lovefilm and Netflix one.

So what the heck can libraries offer for those between the age of 4 and 50+?

Libraries – knowledge and community hub?

Traditionally a geographical community has a few hubs – the church and the pub being most noticeable in the UK (look at any old village and count which buildings were a place of religion or drinking, even if they’re now converted to homes!).

A library is a neutral place in terms of religion and alcohol, often with a fairly educated and knowledgeable staff. We need to make more use of these facilities for more activities alongside and in place of storing dead trees. In fact, the change should be pretty radical, if you follow the logic of serial business success Marc Andreessen, who advises newspapers to shut the presses now to focus on digital and make it successful, even if print is still 80% of the business. Because if it’s 80%, people are too focused on saving it!


How many libraries are looking at being able to lend e-book readers and tablets, whether it’s a Kindle, iPad or something else? An electronic device, a lesson in how to access the ‘free’ content available and the chance to download some via library wifi would be a valuable service to those who are currently disenfranchised from knowledge and the familiarity with technology.

How many libraries are stepping up the amount of community gatherings they have, and aiming to target new niche groups? At the moment, only the very young or the very old are being catered for – where are the routes for me to connect physically or electronically?

What other services are in decline? I’ve written about how I could see libraries taking over from local newspapers in providing community news and events to the local area by running a non-profit website and printed newsletter with a mix of library staff as enablers and either paid or volunteer staff as creators.

And there’s one thing that librarians should know about:

Here’s a valuable niche service in an area of information abundance and overflow. Librarians have spent their time in learning and using a system of categorisation and filing. And from what I’ve seen, and my own slightly compulsive librarian tendencies suggest that it’s an enjoyable human pastime to create the illusion of order from chaos.

So why not put that to good use and have librarians specialise in becoming information taxonomy and category experts? Surely they could be the best people to aid me in sorting my Delicious bookmarks, my RSS categories and my email filters?

And at the same time, perhaps libraries could unite with an existing project like the Internet Archive to find a way to not only preserve, but categorise, the amazing amount of digital information in cyberspace.

After all, if you want a fairly secure and safe record of humanity, you need to be able to back up and access the web – and although it would take an investment in technology beyond the aging PCs in the corner of the library, the fact that you’d have numerous sites around the UK would prevent one problem wiping out the history of information since the later end of the 20th Century.

What other ways are there?

I realise that funding for servers, retraining for staff, and the switch from storing a few thousand dog-eared print books to becoming technology experts and advisers isn’t a simple change (or sadly, a likely one with the need for investment). But I think there’ are incredibly useful services which libraries provide beyond simple storage – enabling human curation and categorisation, and a community hub around providing shared knowledge and space. And I’m keen to see this continue…

So what ideas do you have for evolving libraries and their staff? Or do you disagree and think that libraries have served their purpose? Does Google do a good enough job of looking after information? And are there better places and ways to organise community within separate villages, cities and towns? Any librarians reading? (If you know any, send them the link!)


  1. Where to start? Libraries are a guarantee of ACCESS for all, the greatest levelers of the educational playing field we have. You assume that everyone has computer access; you assume that the “books” your child watches on a puny screen are the equivalent of the works of art you can check out of the library for free. Poor children desperately need the vocabulary and literacy skills one gets with books – and people like you don’t seem to understand that declaring libraries passe leads to mindless politicians declaring them passe and cuts off the children who need educational support the most. Illiteracy is tied to crime, which drains public funds. Perhaps with proper future funding, libraries will lend ebooks to all. But that day is long off.

    • I’m not sure where I suggested that there shouldn’t be access to literature for all, and that certainly wasn’t my intention in any way.

      What I’m suggesting is that “books on a puny screen” are not only the equivalent of the work of art I can get from a library (Bearing in mind they’re exactly the same, and on a hi-res 15″ screen), but also a way to improve access to all ages, rather than limiting the resources to one print copy in an area at any time.

      I completely agree that everyone should have access to vocabulary and literacy skills, and that encouraging improvements in those areas benefits all of society. But everyone should also have access to digital information and navigation skills to be able to contribute and participate in the changing world and economy we are currently experiencing, and to be able to get access to the huge amount of digital information that’s available.

      I’m not declaring libraries ‘passe’ – I’m suggesting that they need to change as much as the book and print publishing industries need to change to survive and thrive, and that requires changes in the way they function – and significant funding to achieve that aim.

      I’d suggest checking out the books licensed under Creative Commons as an example of how things change – I can access works by Cory Doctorow, for example, for free in a range of electronic and audio formats. And under CC licence, I can share them freely with everyone for no cost.

      The best ways to encourage literacy and access aren’t to pump a load of funding into dead tree books – they’re to tackle the thorny issue of copyright, and provide the access to knowledge for the impoverished in a digital environment by lowering the cost of digital access (e.g. providing loads and support for equipment and broadband), promoting the ways in which it can save money, and improving distance learning facilities to enable more people to become better-educated in an era of higher student fees and costs prohibiting more from further education.


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