The Public Library Association (a division of the American Library Association) featured a blog post in which the author, Nate Hill, expressed the sentiment that no “eReader lending (Nook, Kindle, Sony, any reader at all) is a good plan for public libraries”. I don’t subscribe Mr. Hill’s vision of library of the future, but I do agree that libraries should not invest substantial resources in buying and lending hardware such as e-readers.
Like Mr. Hill, I think that libraries can better spend their money elsewhere. Unlike Mr. Hill, I see this “elsewhere” as being in e-books. (This is admittedly more prosaic than my colleague’s idea of “media labs, hacker spaces, coworking spaces, expert staff, and a long term investment in technologies supporting community creativity”.) More specifically, I believe the greatest effort libraries should make in this area is to push for interoperability in e-reading formats and persistence in e-book collecting. In other words, libraries should work to ensure that that the e-books they buy can be read on different platforms and that they have persistent, continued access to said books.
I believe this is a better deployment of resources than favoring a particular commercial vendor by buying the current model of his e-readers. This is because the e-reader market is still experiencing such violent birth pangs and growth spurts from being a new product that any particular model is likely to the outdated soon. Moreover, the e-reading market is still on the steep incline of user up-take; as such we may rapidly reach a point where furnishing the content to be used on the e-readers outweighs the need to supply the hardware itself. After all, how many libraries still make DVD player loans nowadays?
Finally, I think that such an effort for interoperability and persistence both require more a concerted, coordinated drive and yield more of the desired qualities of a public good. No one library is going to be able to effectively push for uniform e-book standard and norm in bookselling that ensures access in perpetuity. Thus, libraries need to organize and get as many players to participate as possible. However, should such an effort succeed, it will mean that everybody will have access to interoperable books for as long as she wants them. Media labs and hacker spaces are lovely to have, but in contrast, the slog to get them will devolve to each individual library, and when one library succeeds, it doesn’t mean the library down the road gets to have the labs and spaces too. Therefore, as a collective “call to action” for the profession, I’m of the biased (towards me) opinion that the everybody-is-needed-everybody-benefits projects are the best to pursue.