Ebooks are radically changing the how people purchase, borrow, read, and write books. Loaded onto portable ereaders that can carry hundreds of books at a time, ebooks are at the forefront of vigorous debate in the industries that are affected by them. Libraries, publishers, writers and consumers all have a stake in this new phenomenon, and are finding that this new technology present conflicts and challenges about how books are distributed and consumed.

According to Gartner Research, in 2011 e-reader sales are anticipated to grow to over 11 million units, driving up the demand for ebooks and other electronic content. In libraries across the country the demand for e-books has increased exponentially. In an LA Times article, Newport Beach authorities are exploring new ways of managing libraries, by providing patrons with the content they crave and the technology they actually use.

“So Newport Beach is weighing a Netflix-like system in which readers could order books and then pick them up from lockers at an ‘electronic library,’ a 2,200-square-foot room with a central fireplace and a kiosk where patrons could select titles online.”

This new model is taking hold in other states and at other libraries as well. The LA Times piece lists both the Stanford engineering library and the University of Texas engineering library as places that have taken the leap from paper tomes to ebooks. With the capacity to hold thousands of documents without the burden of maintaining physical inventory, these libraries represent a jarring new idea of what it means to use a library. Instead of grabbing a book title from the stacks, users can now download materials in an instant. This technological development is a sign of the times, but it also means that the publishing industry has to re-evaluate how it operates to meet changing demands.

For many, libraries are seen as integral parts of the civic experience; they are places where information is affordable and available for those who may not have the means for gaining knowledge otherwise. An important part of award winning playwright August Wilson’s life story is the time he spent in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library, teaching himself after dropping out of high school. The disappearance of the paper book begs the question, how will people access ebooks and other electronic content, particularly if they do not have the necessary access to e-readers? For communities that are socioeconomically depressed, this question becomes particularly pressing. Only time will tell what solutions publishers and libraries will find to address this issue.

The New York Times reported in a recent article that there are also myriad policy issues entangled with ebooks. Some publishers are choosing to let libraries purchase ebooks only for a certain period of time, after which they would have to re-purchase them. Ebook pricing is typically lower than the cost of physical book, and this is having an impact on the revenues of publishing houses. As a result, they are wary of distributing ebooks to libraries for an indefinite period of time.

“Publishers are nervous that e-book borrowing in libraries will cannibalize e-book retail sales. They also lose out on revenue realized as libraries replace tattered print books or supplement hardcover editions with paperbacks, a common practice. Sales to libraries can account for 7 to 9 percent of a publisher’s overall revenue, two major publishers said.”

All of this upheaval comes as libraries in the U.S. and abroad are facing budget cuts and financial challenges. In light of fiscal constraints, it is important for these institutions to be flexible and adapt to new advances in technology in an effort to satisfy their constituents. In fact, embracing these advances is at the very core of literary history, from Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, to the development of the e-ink that minimize glare on the Kindle. Managing the growing pains of these changes will shape how well libraries are able to move forward into the future.

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