Libraries provide an essential set of services to their communities. But what's essential? At any given point in history, library services must be crafted according to the needs of the broader society and to the needs of each local community. Today, technology provides the means to help libraries deliver services relevant to their designated communities. At the same time, technology can introduce incredible disruption.
Library services tied to a given format of content or technology-based delivery mechanism must be agile and able to evolve in tandem to changes in the broader sphere. Shifts in technology and the context of commercial services and other factors have an enormous impact on what services remain in the purview of libraries. As content becomes less physical and more virtual, library services become more fragile and demand continuous vigilance to fill in the gaps that would otherwise remain in an environment of purely commercial activity. The technical, legal, and business context surrounding opportunities for library services seem more challenging than ever before.
The core mission of libraries has always centered on making content and related services available to patrons. The form in which that content is delivered has changed continually The most ancient libraries or archives organized clay tablets or cylinders written in cuneiform. Centuries ago, the transition from scrolls to codices must have been traumatic. Many may have seen the humorous video where a scholar in the middle ages who was used to unwinding scrolls experiences a book for the first time and struggles with how to open it and find information in the unfamiliar format (www.youtube.com/ watch?v=0Cd7Bsp3dDo).
In our own times, these kind of radical transformations happen not every few centuries but every few years. In recent decades, libraries have worked their way through a succession of changes in technology and in media that creates opportunities for library services that may or may not endure.
Computing Resources and Connectivity
Most libraries offer access to computing resources and internet access as part of their core services. Academic libraries provide workstations capable of accessing their online catalogs and collections of electronic resources. Information commons take this service a step further, providing the computational tools needed to create or manipulate content for learning and research projects. Patrons of public libraries appreciate the computers provided for general productivity and access to information resources. Wireless networks in libraries provide free internet access for library patrons' own devices, such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones.
Today, the provision of basic computer and communications infrastructure draws patrons to libraries. The relative scarcity of free internet access in some communities opens an opportunity for the library to offer a valued service. It's an essential service for those with limited resources, providing the means to perform routine tasks that require online access, for applying for jobs, or for processing forms for assistance.
The provision of computing resources has been a good opportunity for libraries in this age of personal computing that did not exist previously. It may or may not be a service that will endure indefinitely. Projects that might result in free wireless internet access throughout a community, while providing a broader public benefit, would subvert the unique position of the library's service. But it seems unlikely that the digital divide will close any time soon, preserving a strong mandate for libraries to provide access to the computing tools otherwise not available to segments of their community. The provision of internet access and computing tools naturally requires continual attention to be sure that the equipment and services offered respond to current patron needs.
The Future of Media Lending
Libraries have offered audio and video materials in their collections for many years. It's easy to see how video, music, or other multimedia content recorded on physical media fits well into a library's circulating collections. Libraries have seen enthusiastic response to their collections of music and movies. I've heard reports that loans of media represent as much as 30% of some public libraries' circulation activity. But the advent of digital content in these areas throws a wrench into the works from the library perspective.
Changes in the broader consumer arena will inevitably challenge this aspect of library service offerings. The transformation of the distribution from music albums published on CDs to online services such as iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, and Rhapsody diminishes interest in library lending for free access to music. Today, commercial services offer free and low-cost offerings to music libraries more diverse than what any given library might be able to assemble. Only a smaller niche of interest remains for music on CDs or other physical media. The resurgence of vinyl recordings still represents a tiny fraction of published music. Clearly the role of libraries has been radically changed as a result of the transformation of the music industry itself. Services such as Freegal Music (www.libraryideas.com/freegal.html) from Library Ideas, LLC open a role for libraries in the digital music ecosystem, but the role is more as a discount reseller, but not within the traditional library lending arrangement.
Many of the same dynamics are in play with movies and other video materials. The mass distribution of movies on VHS opened a great opportunity for libraries. At least initially, VHS movies were quite expensive, and library lending was a free alternative to purchase or rental. The transition from VHS to DVD involved libraries as well as individuals repurchasing their inventories, but the model of physical lending remained intact. The more recent introduction of Bluray may be different. It comes at the same time that streaming services are beginning to gain enormous traction. The advent of streaming movie services, especially Netflix, may spell the demise of library lending of movies just as it devastated the movie rental industry.
The systemic changes taking place in the distribution of movies and music limit the stand to constrain the role of libraries in this arena. Though libraries filled a need in times when the physical distribution channels were conducive to existing lending models and the high cost of content sparked interest in free alternatives, streaming services change the mix entirely. The licensing arrangements and legal environment for streaming content is adverse to library involvement, and the cost per viewing may be low enough to subvert interest in free alternatives such as might be provided by a library, especially if those alternatives require more effort on the part of the patron. In the realm of digital media, the business model and delivery mechanisms favor the direct-to-consumer approach, with limited possibilities for library involvement. It's difficult, for example, to see how an organization such as Netflix would be motivated to offer accounts to libraries at reasonable costs that would allow free distribution to patrons. Will library-oriented platforms, such as OverDrive, Inc. and its competitors, be able to license popular movies in ways that might provide alternatives to those who may not be able to afford a Netflix subscription? The requirements for broadband connections and reasonably modern computers would still remain.
The Challenges of Ebooks
Libraries face similar challenges in the ebook arena. While music and movies might represent an interesting supplement to a library's collection offerings, books hold an absolutely strategic position. While I continue to believe that the circulation of printed books will remain a vigorous portion of library activity for the far-distant future, interest in ebooks has already passed a critical threshold and seems poised to continue to grow aggressively. For many of the communities served by libraries, reading preferences are shifting from traditional printed books to ebooks.
Publishers concerned for preserving their business interests in this digital arena have enormous concerns that don't necessarily favor a strong role for libraries. They don't want ebook files to be shared widely in ways that would obviate demand for individuals to purchase their own copies. The delivery platforms in place now are optimized for direct-to-consumer transactions, with the highest degree of control to minimize the opportunities of leakage of copies that could find their way into the wild. Digital rights management (DRM), despite its many flaws, has become an established mechanism of control in the distribution channels of ebooks. Even though some publishers and ebook distributors have seen success without DRM, it's hard to be optimistic that this more-open approach will prevail, at least in the short term.
Libraries have always represented an important segment of the economy of book publishing. The number of copies purchased by libraries isn't insignificant, and library lending strengthens demand for purchasing materials. Avid readers tend to be both active library and bookstore patrons. Libraries and bookstores have coexisted quite nicely during the era of print. It's yet to be seen how libraries will ultimately find their place in the ebook arena. The current rounds of lobbying, negotiating, explorations of business models, and licensing arrangements - often contentious - will hopefully result in a strong position for library lending of ebooks in the longer term. But this is a critical time, when the outcome of an ongoing constructive dialogue will make an incredible difference in the options for library lending of ebooks.
Despite these enormous challenges, I remain optimistic that libraries will have a strong role going forward. In the long term, it still seems reasonable to me that the current struggle between publishers and libraries will result in ebook lending services that both provide a valued service to library patrons and preserve a business model favorable to authors, publishers, and distributors. I also don't anticipate any end to the ongoing cycle of technologyrelated services offered by libraries, as long as libraries adapt quickly to each round of change.