The Role of the Library in the Future of Reading

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A popular topic coming across my radar screen is the future of reading, and more specifically the role of libraries in the future of reading. Much of commentary seems to have been inspired by the announcement of the Apple iPad device, but it isn't necessarily limited to that. Here are three exemplars, in no particular order, followed by some of my own comments.

Joshua Kim, senior learning technologist and an adjunct in sociology at Dartmouth College, posted a commentary called Popular Nonfiction, Academic Libraries, and Audiobooks at Inside Higher Ed. Joshua does an interesting comparison of the availability of "popular nonfiction" in paper and audio book format. He took his list of 197 audiobooks from Audible and cross-referenced them with availability of paper copies in his academic library. To his delight, he found that the library had paper copies of nearly three-quarters of them. It was his second question, though, that got me thinking: "Should academic libraries supply borrowers with the book format that matches their preferences and learning styles (paper, e-paper, or audio)?"

Josh Greenberg, Director of Digital Strategy and Scholarship at the New York Public Library, posted an entry on his blog late last month called Books, iTunes, and rental. At the top of his post, he is "wondering about the business model for books in the iTunes Store, and whether there will be an opening for circulating (particularly public) libraries or not." He strikes a comparison between the ability to rent self-destructing movies from iTunes and how that can be a new business model for book publishers. To bring this into the realm of libraries, he suggests we "imagine an option for an institutional iTunes account, where a given user would add a library card number to their iTunes account and their library would pick up the tab when they “rent” books (or, plausibly, even other media)."

And finally, an article at CNN/Money has a series of interviews where 10 luminaries look ahead to the business of reading (via Matt Mullenweg, founding developer of WordPress and one of the people interviewed for the article). Although Matt's response to the question of the future business of reading was interesting, I found the response from Paul LeClerc, president and CEO of the New York Public Library, even more fascinating ((This paragraph is excerpted as-is from the article. There are clearly some words missing, but I think the overall concepts are understandable.)) :

So we could buy x number of copies of Catcher in the Rye as books but also through a vendor we could buy y number of copies of Catcher in the Rye as e-books or e-audio books and then let's say we buy 50 of each, 50 hardcopy and 50 e-books. It's like having 100 copies of the book.

In each of these, the authors are struggling to reconceptualize the role of the library in the transition from a familiar print world ((I'm ignoring the role of formats such as microform here because they are, for the most part, a medium that is more identical to print than it isn't.)) to a multi-format world of text-on-paper and text-on-screen (in all of its various incarnations) and text-as-audio. The latter is certainly a more complicated, uncertain world.

I think it is time to separate the cost of the content versus the cost of the container. From a bottom-up cost calculation, doing so would recognize that it takes a certain amount of effort -- paying the author and editor, plus all of the overhead involved -- to create a coherent chunk of text. That is a fixed cost that is independent of how the chunk of text is distributed. To this is added the cost of the format: paper/printing/binding/shipping for the physical version, bits-on-disk/infrastructure for the electronic version, and voice-talent/audio-engineer/distribution for the audio version. If one has paid for the content creation once, shouldn't paying for the carrier of that content -- paper, electronic, audio -- simply be an incremental cost? In other words, if I buy the book in paper and find I want to have it read to me, shouldn't I then just have to pay for the voice-talent/audio-engineer/distribution costs for that particular carrier?

In some respects, I think it then becomes easier to face the prospect of serving the disparate needs and desires of patrons for various formats. To reconceptualize Paul's scenario: the library buys 100 copies of the intellectual work known as Catcher in the Rye and chooses 50 manifestations in the paper format and 50 manifestations in e-book format. The cost of switching, say, from a PDF e-book format to an ePub e-book format is just the cost of changing carriers -- no "new" content has been purchased. Same thing would hold true if the library decided to convert 20 of its 50 paper carriers into audio book carriers.

I am struggling a bit with Josh Greenberg's notion of a library barcode tied to an institutional iTunes account. Although I've advocated for "Just-In-Time" acquisitions policy/system of the kind that he is proposing, it was in the context of buying items in paper that the library would keep after the patron was done with it. In other words, there would be something owned at the end. An institutional subscription to limited-duration rentals of electronic content is quite different. The institution gets nothing in the end from subsidizing the reader's access to the electronic library. I'm not so sure I'm in favor of that. It is certainly giving me something to think about.