Sunday, November 09, 2008


We have previously questioned the role of public libraries in the age of the digital download. Our question is not so much on their validity or funding, but more on their role and market competitive position with respect to digital product, its retail and consumer. In this digital age when anyone is merely a click away from anything, from anywhere, where people go to get it? In this new world are the winners and losers determined not by the content but the cost and ease of access?

If a library lends out digital books for free, or even at a subsidised level, why would the consumer want to buy it? ‘Rent to read’ is probably the most logically digital book model and as broadband and devices become more permanently connected then so does the switch from download to online. The Internet has exploded the ability for anyone to sell or distribute anything to anyone without having the inventory or the pick and pack operation. So if everyone has access to anything at anytime, the choice is down to where you go to get it.

So do libraries just become museums where people go to see vast shelves of paper books, old tomes that would never be found on the high street, or do they engage more with digital content and become community centres of learning, information and culture? Should their be a UK, European or global digital library consortia, or is it now called Google?

What do they charge and how are they funded? If they are already funded by the public, why would the public want to pay again? If the material is free why would anyone want to go anywhere else? A library service such as the Danish eBog service are showing how digital books can be integrated in the public library system, but is this vision shared by others or merely local.

Last week ‘Publishers Lunch’ reported on the ‘Big Library Cuts in Philadelphia.’

‘As municipalities across the country face large gaps in their budget, Philadelphia is taking "drastic new steps" to face the "economic storm" that include closing 11 of the 54 branch libraries that comprise the Free Library of Philadelphia. Three other branches will have Sunday hours eliminated. Mayor Michael Nutter said the branches were chosen "after careful review of building conditions, utilization and distance to other libraries in the Free Library system." Cutting 220 jobs throughout the city government, approximately one third of those layoffs will come from the library staff.’

We have previously reported on the skipping and burning of unwanted books by UK libraries. A situation that can only increase as their physical space and funding diminishes.

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