• What are Libraries For?

    April 20, 2011

    In the Library with the Lead Pipe welcomes guest author Hugh McGuire, the founder of LibriVox.org, the world’s most prolific publisher of audiobooks (all read by volunteers); Iambik Audio, a commercial audiobook publisher built on a model similar to LibriVox; and PressBooks, a simple digital book-production tool. Hugh served on the Board (2002-2010) of the Atwater Library, a small community library, and the last remaining Mechanics Institute in Canada.

    The Kindle Gazer, after Lilla Cabot Perry by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com / CC-BY

    The Kindle Gazer, after Lilla Cabot Perry by Flickr user Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com (CC-BY 2.0)

    By

    Ebooks will become the dominant form of casual reading for adults at some point in the future1. When this happens, community and public libraries will face a major existential crisis, because a fundamental (perhaps the fundamental) function of community libraries—lending print books—will no longer be a fundamental demand from the community. Libraries that do not adjust will find their services increasingly irrelevant to the populations they serve.

    If ebooks will become dominant, and if community libraries have, to date, structured their existence around a dying function (lending print books), then how will libraries remain relevant in the future?

    To find an answer to this conundrum, it’s important to try to understand the reason for a library’s existence, rather than focus on the things a library does.

    How you do something does not define why you exist

    I’d like to propose a loose definition of what libraries are for, which comes out of something of a trope: that the central problem for big institutions when the environment around them is changing (as it is for libraries with the arrival of ebooks) is that they falsely assume that how they do things defines why they exist. In fact, the inverse relationship should dominate what they do: why they exist should define how they do things. Put another way, institutions must understand what they are for in order to properly understand how they should be, especially when the foundations upon which they were built are changing. (With the caveat that knowing what one ought to do is very different from being able to make the changes required).

    This is the challenge now for any institution that deals in information: book stores, music labels, the movie business, public broadcasters, schools and universities, and certainly libraries. That is, they have defined their existence by various functions they perform within a given information ecosystem, one that is changing completely as digital comes to dominate all media forms. All these institutions—libraries included—grew up in an ecosystem where information was scarce, and information distribution was the base function of what they did. How they did things was a function of the need that they answered. But with digital, the ecosystem is changing, has changed, will change completely in the coming decades.

    Information is abundant; distribution is (in theory) free

    Information is now abundant and distribution is essentially (in theory anyway) free. Institutions are having a hard time adapting, and at least part of the difficulty is shifting a mindset from function to purpose: shifting the thinking from how we do things defining our beings now, to why we do things defining how we’ll do things in the future.

    So: music labels thought they sold CDs to people; newspapers think they get writers to make news articles and get people to read them; libraries think they give people access to books and computers. But they are all wrong, to a lesser or greater extent.

    These kinds of definitions get you tied up in functional activities, and they don’t really get to the core of what’s important, what the real thing is that an institution does, the real value it provides to the universe.

    What are libraries for?

    As a starting point, here is my proposal for what a community library is for:

    1. to disseminate books and information for free or close to free
    2. to archive information
    3. to provide a community space for people to interact around information
    4. perhaps: to give people the tools necessary to manage information in a sensible way.

    With that out of the way, here are some factors that will fundamentally change what libraries do in the future.

    The Price of Ebooks Will Tend Towards Zero

    Publishers of all stripes—from the New York Times to HarperCollins to SonyMusic—will continue to spend time and energy in the coming decade fighting people’s reluctance to pay for digital content at the prices they used to pay for analog media. But those efforts will fail, and ebook prices will drop, sooner or later, because keeping the prices up is fighting against two fundamental forces: supply and demand, and the elimination of the expenses traditionally associated with publishing and distribution.

    Fundamental Force #1: Supply and Demand

    The supply of books is increasing exponentially. In 2002 there were on the order of 275,000 books published by traditional publishers in the USA. By 2009, that number—if you include micro- and self-published work—rose to close to 1 million books. Note that this was before the ebook revolution really got going, and publishing a “book” became an almost trivial matter. While many will point out that the quality of self-published books won’t compete with the quality of published works, that distinction is going away. We have major writers choosing to self-publish for economic reasons (Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath), and million-selling self-publishers signing with major publishing houses (Amanda Hocking). The distinction between self and published will fade, and the number of books out there is just going to continue to increase.

    Demand on the other hand—defined by the number of hours per day humans can read books—is going to stay roughly constant. And the demand for books is facing an ever-growing challenge, the challenge of other things we can do with our time: movies, news article, blog posts, video games, Youtube videos, Angry Birds, Facebook—and any number of other instantly-available sources of information or entertainment—all compete with books for our time.

    Supply of information is going up; demand is staying roughly constant.

    The economic equation is clear: the value of any random piece of entertainment (whether that’s a book or an mp3 track) will tend to zero2.

    We live in a world where the supply of books is growing exponentially, and the demand for books is relatively static, and certainly under fire. The result must be a decline in price.

    Fundamental Force #2: The Cost of Publishing & Global Distribution Has Gone to Zero

    An ebook is infinitely copyable and infinitely distributable at (almost) zero cost. Of course, you have to pay the writer and editor and all that, but getting text from a writer’s keyboard to the eyes of a reader might as well be free (to test this theory: find a long text file on your computer and email it to a friend).

    Media businesses have spent the last 15 years fighting against supply and demand, and zero-cost distribution, using Digital Rights Management (DRM), paywalls, and lawsuits. There is no indication that this has worked, the music business has abandoned DRM, and Netflix now gives consumers unlimited movie downloads for $7.95 per month, a price that would have been laughed at just a few years ago.

    The price problem will be even worse in the book publishing business, because books are much easier to copy and ship around the Internet than any other media; they are just text files, occasionally with images. Whatever barriers to distribution official market channels put up (high prices, DRM) will be easily overcome by unofficial/black market channels.

    Libraries have long served as a place where cost-conscious readers could find books at near-zero prices (paid for by taxes or relatively low membership fees). But what happens when all these ebooks are available at prices approaching free—legally or otherwise—on the Internet?

    While a certain portion of the population might choose the library out of ethical consideration, or fondness for the past, the laws of economics and physics will prevail in the long-run: people will get their ebooks where friction is least, and if that means free books on the Internet, that’s where they will go. Eventually price pressure will affect ebooks the way it has affected music and movies. Piracy and unauthorized sharing of ebooks will grow as a black market; eventually publishers will recognize that they cannot compete against a black market that is so much better at matching supply and demand, and they will begin to provide ebooks at close-to-free prices. This is what’s happened in music (Spotify, Rdio, MOG, Grooveshark, Last.fm, Pandora), and movies (Netflix, Amazon On-Demand Movies).

    It will happen in ebooks.

    When this happens, libraries won’t be competing against illegal free content available through file sharing, but rather with nominally-priced subscription ebook services that provide unlimited access to ebooks to consumers (or something similar).

    So what happens to a library when all ebooks in the world are accessible to readers at a cost that approaches a couple of cups of coffee a month, or for more enterprising readers, nothing at all?

    What is the purpose of a library if one of its defining market advantages—its low price—no longer distinguishes a library from the commercial competition?

    All Books Will Live on the Web

    Ebooks, as we now know them, are a transitional format. They won’t go away, but in a few years (2? 5? 20?) all books will live on the web, as well as in various other incarnations, such as printed books, ePub, Kindle’s AZW, and whatever else we might do with them.

    But books will live on the web because there is more value for a reader if a book is on the web, and in print, and in ebook format, than if a book is only ebook and print. A book on the web can be searched, referenced, shared, copied, pasted, and who knows what else, more easily than if it is only in ebook format or print. The market economy is good at rewarding those who find ways to deliver more value to consumers, so there will be immense commercial incentive for new publishers to emerge, publishers that will put books on the web; old publishers will follow or perish, in the long run.

    One characteristic of the library is that it has always been the place that had the books we wanted to read. So what happens when every book in the universe is not just available to be bought, but available to be read and interacted with on the web, immediately from any person’s computing device?

    If the archiving of books happens instantly on the web, and if the dissemination of books happens at nearing zero cost on the web, what is a library for?

    The Response to Date: Fake Friction

    The tendency in libraries—as with all existing media institutions in the digital age—is to try to introduce artificial constraints that make digital information difficult in some of the ways non-digital information is. In the case of commercial publishers, this is achieved through Digital Rights Management—which restricts readers’ ability to copy ebooks and move them from device to device. Further, unique valuable characteristics of a digital book—e.g., easy copy/pasting—are generally disabled.

    In the case of libraries, the question has been framed roughly as:

    How do we replicate a financial model where we bought a copy of a print book and were able to lend it out only to one person at a time?

    In the physical world, library lending has two main constraints:

    • Physical Constraint #1: only one person can have a particular copy of a book out at any given time.
    • Physical Constraint #2: a patron can have a copy of a printed book only for a defined period of time.

    In the digital world, both of these constraints are artificial: ebooks are infinitely copyable at zero cost, so:

    • an infinite number of patrons could theoretically “check out” an ebook at any given time
    • there is no need to “return” an ebook; since it is infinitely copyable, the library always has other copies for other patrons.

    Of course, the financial arrangement between libraries and publishers, developed in the print environment, and replicated for now in digital, introduces fake frictions of various kinds:

    • (Fake) Digital Constraint #1: only one patron can take out an ebook at any given time
    • (Fake) Digital Constraint #2: patrons must “return” those ebooks when they are finished with them.

    This replicates a print model, and allows libraries and publishers to continue their relationship more or less as it developed prior to digital.

    But this just won’t last, because it means that libraries will become uncompetitive—on price and convenience—with other ways of getting ebooks. Libraries will become more and more irrelevant to readers.

    Some Solutions?

    Chaotic change is coming for all who deal with books, libraries included. And the solutions to this uncertain future is to clearly understand what a library is for, and to make sure that resources are allocated to meet these needs as the world changes.

    Above, I proposed a definition of what libraries are for:

    1. to disseminate books and information for free or close to free
    2. to archive information
    3. to provide a community space for people to interact around information
    4. perhaps: to give people the tools necessary to manage information in a sensible way.

    Priorities must shift.

    1. Disseminating Books and Information for Free

    I would argue that #1 will soon no longer be a unique property of libraries, and that easily accessible ebooks at close to zero cost will be available to everyone, either legally or otherwise. Unfortunately, community libraries have structured themselves to date to fulfill this function, probably above all others. I don’t think disseminating free books will be a sustainable core function for libraries.

    2. Archiving

    The Internet will serve the purpose of the great archive of all (new) books, and a good portion of old ones as well (see Google Books and the Internet Archive). At the same time, community libraries may well serve an important role in collecting, archiving, and organizing information important to a local population, whether print or digital. That all the information is available on the Internet does not mean that it is well organized, especially for local interests. The “Internet” cannot and will not archive specifically for specific populations, so there is an important role here for libraries.

    3. Community Space

    Already an important function of a library, providing community space and context for interaction around information should continue to be a focus, and is something that the shift to digital cannot change. Indeed, as we continue to suffer from information overload from all sides, providing social context, and physical interaction in a public space, will surely grow in importance.

    4. Managing Information

    That every bit of information might exist on the Internet does not make it any easier for most people to navigate. Indeed the role of libraries as curators, editors, and selectors will just grow in importance as the sea of bits and bytes continues to rise around us.

    Conclusions

    A world of ubiquitous free or near-free ebooks is coming, in 5 or 10 or 20 years. And when that happens, a library that defines itself as “a place where you can get free or near-free books” will no longer be an institution providing a service deemed important enough to be maintained by its community. But libraries have never been solely about free books. They are about something deeper, about information, about access to knowledge, about providing a public space where citizens can interact with each other, all within the context of an exchange of knowledge. Libraries are at the core of our understanding of civilization, and if we are to keep them healthy, we’ll have to make sure that they continue to answer deep needs in our society, rather than provide particular services because they’ve always done so.

    Thanks to Eli Neiburger and Alex Wright for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article, and to Brett Bonfield for helping to prepare it for publication.

    1. Ebook sales accounted for 1-2% for trade publishers in the USA in 2008. By 2010 that number was somewhere around 10%, and is expected to be 15-20% by the end of 2011. There is no reason to expect that this trend won’t continue, and major publishing houses expect 50% of their business to be digital by 2015. This doesn’t mean that print is going away, but it does mean that any person, business, or institution involved in books must prepare for a time, coming soon, when the majority of book reading is done on digital devices. []
    2. Note, however, that the value of sorting, aggregating, and presenting the right information, is going up. So Google (sorting), Amazon (aggregating), and Apple (presenting) information are among the most highly valued companies in the world, while the producers of information—say, The New York Times and Random House—will continue to struggle. []

Please read the comment policy before posting: 48 Comments

  • ellie says:

    I don’t know if this was meant to be an inflammatory post, but I find myself having an incredibly strong knee-jerk reaction to this piece on a couple of fronts.

    I’m particularly sad to see that someone who has been on a library board would list disseminating books as the number one reason WHY libraries exist. The history of libraries in America shows the purpose of libraries to be a public place of education and civic engagement. In a less positive light, its origins are as a place of indoctrination, where we can raise up the unwashed masses into good Americans. In a kinder light it’s the place where we level the playing field and struggle towards equity. Books are one means to that end. In the past they may have been the primary means (and I think even that could be debated), but they were never the end itself. In England, many lending libraries did begin as a way to cost share, but the huge public library movements in America did not come from that ethos. They came from a belief in the importance of literacy, education, and much as we like to forget – moral indoctrination.

    I am always frustrated by arguments about digital ubiquity that ignore the privilege they bring to the discussion. All the literature on the digital divide emphasizes that access is only one small aspect of the problem. (See Jessamyn West’s recent presentations and book for more – e.g. http://www.librarian.net/talks/txla11/txla11.pdf). Just giving people computers/broadband, or access to computers/broadband, or putting all the books online does not automatically solve the problem of the digital divide.

    I also object to the position that it is libraries who are trying to make it difficult for patrons to use ebooks. While we have certainly failed to negotiate better contracts with our vendors, that is not the same thing as actively seeking to make ebooks more like print books. The implication that libraries want or actively sought out this solution is just not true.

    I completely agree with your closing sentences, but argue that what you propose is exactly what public libraries do. I would argue the priorities you’re listing shifted a long time ago, and that our biggest failure is not in failing to realize and adapt, but in failing to market ourselves effectively and in failing to persuade public opinion to realize (or perhaps remember) that we are in fact cultural centers with a variety of offerings, not just buildings full of books.

    • Hugh McGuire says:

      Sorry, just saw that I can respond directly.

      One last comment: perhaps I am speaking more about the ppopular impression of what a library is for, rather than what libraries think of themselves as for.

      But the question then is: what happens to public sentiment if/when lending books is no longer deemed valuable to the general public (because of easy/cheap access elsewhere)? How do libraries position themselves then, and how will they maintain the support of the communities that pay for them?

      • ellie says:

        I think this comment is getting at what I failed to express with my digital divide comment (and may fail again to express well here). I think there is a shift in culture to view the library (and many other public institutions) in terms of ‘what does it do for me’ instead of ‘what does it do for society?’ We say, ‘I can use and afford computers and broadband and everything is online, so what is the point of a library for me?’ (ignoring those left behind in the digital divide) And the thing is – there will likely always be economic and cultural barriers to certain groups of people and to me, the library is a place we try to break down those barriers, not just a place we give free books to people who could probably actually afford them anyway.

        Libraries in America started not just because people couldn’t afford to buy books and thought they could cut costs by sharing, but because they knew OTHERS couldn’t afford not only books but basic education, and they felt it was important as a society to provide a free place for intellectual stimulation and curiosity for everyone along with staff to help navigate those spaces.

        Anyway, this is all a tangent to your piece and not at all a critique of it. Just a personal lament :)

        You ask a valid question of how to position ourselves within this changing landscape.

  • Hugh McGuire says:

    I don’t know if this was meant to be an inflammatory post, but I find myself having an incredibly strong knee-jerk reaction to this piece on a couple of fronts.

    Certainly it’s meant to be provocative.

    I’m particularly sad to see that someone who has been on a library board would list disseminating books as the number one reason WHY libraries exist.

    It is my experience that the biggest budget expenditure in a library budget is allocated to book lending, and I think that’s what will have to change, and radically.

    I suppose that’s my main point and might have been made more clearly.

    My experience is that the discussion around shifting budgets from books to other things isn’t an easy one.

    The history of libraries in America shows the purpose of libraries to be a public place of education and civic engagement… They came from a belief in the importance of literacy, education, and much as we like to forget – moral indoctrination.

    I wonder though if you asked around your communities what people would say? Maybe that is my point, that libraries need to reposition themselves in the public imagination as something other than “a place where you take out books.” My experience is that that’s how they are seen. And indeed in my role on the board of the Atwater Library we spent lots of time trying to figure out how we could craft a message that resonated more widely with the wider population, how we could shift the institution from being primarily about books, to something completely different. We succeeded to some degree. Certainly other libraries have done the same/

    I am always frustrated by arguments about digital ubiquity that ignore the privilege they bring to the discussion. All the literature on the digital divide emphasizes that access is only one small aspect of the problem. (See Jessamyn West’s recent presentations and book for more – e.g. http://www.librarian.net/talks/txla11/txla11.pdf). Just giving people computers/broadband, or access to computers/broadband, or putting all the books online does not automatically solve the problem of the digital divide.

    I agree, and I don’t think I suggested otherwise.

    I also object to the position that it is libraries who are trying to make it difficult for patrons to use ebooks. While we have certainly failed to negotiate better contracts with our vendors, that is not the same thing as actively seeking to make ebooks more like print books. The implication that libraries want or actively sought out this solution is just not true.

    That could have been clearer, I suppose. The “fault” is not with libraries, but with publisher terms and vendor platforms; but this world of false friction is where libraries find themselves.

    I completely agree with your closing sentences, but argue that what you propose is exactly what public libraries do. I would argue the priorities you’re listing shifted a long time ago, and that our biggest failure is not in failing to realize and adapt, but in failing to market ourselves effectively and in failing to persuade public opinion to realize (or perhaps remember) that we are in fact cultural centers with a variety of offerings, not just buildings full of books.

    Again, I wonder what the budgets look like, but perhaps what’s needed is a clearer statement to the public about this. If it hasn’t happened, why not? Where is the blockage?

    • ellie says:

      After posting my comment I did stop and wonder if this post was more about budget distribution, so thank you for clarifying that point.

      I have absolutely no first hand information about budget allocations at public libraries (I’m in academics), but your assumption rings true to me. I wonder how much of a catch-22 we’re in – if the public sees us as a free book warehouse, would they be up in arms if we slashed our book budgets?

      Also, books aren’t free yet, and the most recent statistics I’ve read only have about 5% of Americans owning ereaders (http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Generations-and-gadgets/Overview.aspx), so while I don’t disagree with the overall trend of ebooks being on the rise, if it’s going to take 10 or 20, I do wonder if it’s too soon to actually implement a drastic budget shift.

      I don’t wonder whether it’s too soon to have the conversation though, so thank you for that.

  • Hugh McGuire says:

    I wonder how much of a catch-22 we’re in – if the public sees us as a free book warehouse, would they be up in arms if we slashed our book budgets?

    Yes, I think this is exactly why I wrote this: libraries need to have this conversation with the public, because if they don’t the conversation will happen without them, and that won’t be good for anyone.

    Of course I might be wrong about near-free ebooks everywhere – or it may take decades.

    Luckily I don’t have a library budget to manage!

  • Edgar Crook says:

    Excellent article, but I would suggest a couple of things.
    “It is my experience that the biggest budget expenditure in a library budget is allocated to book lending, and I think that’s what will have to change, and radically.”

    I certainly agree that book lending will need to substantially change. However the largest budget expenditure for most libraries is in fact the staff and not the lending materials.
    Which is why I would have as first in your definitions of what is a library for.
    1. To provide a range of services to the public through the use of professional librarian staff.

    As to the chapter on fake friction, I would agree and say that libraries have conspicuously failed to provide, anticipate or manage ebooks. Libraries had enormous forewarning of ebooks rise, but failed to act, failed to organise and failed to negotiate, thus we are left with OverDrive and whatever terms HarperCollins etc. wish to force on us.

    • Hugh McGuire says:

      However the largest budget expenditure for most libraries is in fact the staff and not the lending materials.

      Yes, by budget I mean: the sum of: book purchasing, cataloging, square footage, staffing, & whatever other resources that get put into “acquiring & lending books” … as opposed to other things.

      NOTE: I am not necessarily saying that we should slash book lending budgets. I am saying that libraries right now behave as if (= spend money as if) lending books is the most important thing they do. The importance of that service will continue to wane, in my opinion. So how will libraries adapt?

  • […] venture (along lines complementary to Wharton Digital Publishing or various of the great Hugh McGuire’s ideas). If you’re a mega-philanthropist who’s interested in helping spark the kickover of the digital […]

  • I agree that library as a community gathering place is extremely important. Programming is a popular service and can be easily geared toward any group of people, young and old, of any ethnicity, education level, socio-economic level.

    Another purpose of libraries is to fight for intellectual freedom, defend free speech and expression, and stand up to censorship. Do you think these values will still be a part of the library’s definition in the increasingly digital future?

    • Hugh McGuire says:

      Yes, I think so, but I wonder how much support public libraries get for that work, within the governments that typically fund them, and the populations they typically serve? I don’t know. I certainly feel as if these kinds of ideas are less and less compelling to the general public in our “public sphere” … though of course, to me anyway, that makes libraries so much more important. Because I think these ideas – rather than just being “good” – are the things that make our communities healthy.

      This is really the challenge for libraries, I think: to make the case that they are central pillars that make for healthy communities – books, ebooks, or otherwise.

  • Leigh Anne says:

    Ellie expressed, and far more coherently at that, everything I am feeling in this moment. I, too, had a strong knee-jerk reaction to this piece, for the simple reason that I cannot, CANNOT understand why we are in such a mad rush to divest ourselves of everything human, tactile, tangible, physical, in favor of all that is cold, clinical, impersonal, digital.

    Then again, I’m a poet/playwright in addition to being a librarian, which means I’m quite mad. But I will stand by my mad world to its bitter end, rather than go quietly into that horrid dark night, in which the tactile, sensual pleasure of a print book — made, I might add, from renewable resources instead of conflict metals that exploit workers and colonialize the digital sphere still further — are valued and cherished.

    Leigh Anne

    • Kevin says:

      As a librarian-cartoonist who often self-publishes (using print-on-demand services made possible by our digital tech, that is), I have sympathy for this knee-jerk reaction. Actually, what worries me even more is the loss of diversity of materials, that we will throw all of our eggs into a digital basket and sacrifice all of the wonderful analog options we have created the past 100 years — not counting 500 years of bookmaking, of course. Consumers now have a lot of choice to meet their information needs and their different learning styles. I’d hate for us to lose that.

    • Nancy Rifkin says:

      hear hear, Leigh Anne!

  • Bill McCoy says:

    To the earlier comments hand-wringing about “digital divide”: I find this argument to be entirely backwards. Digital will actually increase access drastically:

    1. Billions of people live without any access to libraries or bookstores but have phones, the fast majority of which will within a few years be internet-connected smartphones fully suitable for reading.

    2. Even in the affluent developed world, most people don’t live close to a good library and the selection of content is going to be far less than the 1M eBooks already commercially available today.

    3. Budget pressures mean library hours are increasingly limited and book acquisition budgets constrained, further limiting practical access. eBooks (including library-loaned) can be acquired 24×7 from any location.

    4. Every eBook is a large-print book. How many large-print books does your library stock?

    5. Every eBook can (license terms and SW permitting) be read out loud with text-to-speech functionality. How many audio books does your library stock?

    I love books but let’s face it: physical books in quantity are a luxury good for the affluent – in which category,in a global context, I include “underprivileged” public library patrons in U.S. and Europe. Digital is making a vastly increased selection of books available to all.

  • Hugh, what a great piece. You were thorough and analytical and I think you laid out the issues beautifully.

    I think most people not deeply steeped in libraries would view public libraries as, primarily, places that gather content to make it accessible. The community space and education elements would be seen (by most) as secondary functions that flow from the building full of books.

    You’ve made a case I agree with, which is that over the next decade or two, the relative value of a building full of books is going to decline. The other worthwhile functions of a library will have to stand on their own to get funding and I really wonder whether the term “library” will be the right description of what they’ll be when that happens.

    But, whatever we end up calling it, every library around today is going to come up with a whole new rationale to keep its doors open in the years to come.

  • Spencer says:

    It’s like the author reached into my head and typed what was in there. Anyone who disagrees is doing so because inertia is a powerful force, not because the argument is incorrect.

    • Leigh Anne says:

      Actually, no – there are other reasons to disagree with this post. Your statement is a perfect example of how the dominant discourse automatically dismisses criticism out of hand by making an ad hominem argument about the critic.

  • […] the most thought-provoking, long-form blog posts out there. In the post made on Wednesday the 20th, What Are Libraries For?, guest author Hugh McGuire says: I’d like to propose a loose definition of what libraries are […]

  • John says:

    This is a very interesting and important post, but I question the economic assertion that “Price of Ebooks Will Tend Towards Zero.” Yes, that is a possible result but it is not necessary or inevitable. Obviously, it hasn’t happened yet (actually, cost of my Kindle books have been increasing recently), and neither of the “Fundamental Forces” described in the post necessarily will drive ebook prices down to zero.

    I’ll start with Fundamental Force #2, which contains a stronger argument. The mere fact that it is possible to copy and distribute a product at no cost does not mean that it necessarily will become free in the marketplace. For example, consider the MicroSoft Windows OS. The cost of making and distributing another copy of Windows has always been next to nothing. Yet, Bill Gates has become one of the richest men in the world by selling a product that technically can be distributed almost as freely as an ebook could be. The whole for-profit software industry is trying to do the same. In many ways, there are very strong similarities between the for-profit software industry and ebook publishers. Both are making a product in which the “first copy” costs can be very high, but the costs of making additional copies is almost nothing. That doesn’t mean that their products automatically become free. For an excellent, in-depth economic analysis of this topic see the book “information rules” by Hal Varian: http://www.inforules.com/ Varian realized in the 1990s that most information goods could be copied at almost no cost in a network economy and talked about the various ways that information companies make money in that environment.

    The First Fundamental Force in the post — “Supply and Demand” — makes even less sense to me. Yes, of course, it is true that there are many more books out there than readers can or want to read. But that has been true for at least 100 years since the invention of mass-production printing. I don’t know the exact numbers, but around 80% of the print books published — even before anyone thought about ebooks — never make any money because almost no one wanted to read them. It doesn’t make sense to talk about the supply and demand with regard to books in general because each different book or ebook is a different product. When people want to read a book, they want a specific title or a specific type of book. They don’t want just anything that happens to be published. For example, if my daughter wants the latest Harry Potter novel, I won’t satisfy her by saying: “I’m not going to waste my money on that Potter book when there are millions of blog posts that you could read for free and lots of used paperbacks that I could get you at library book sale for almost nothing.”

    In fact, I think that the concept of supply and demand for books in general is almost irrelevant in trying to figure out how much ebooks will cost.

    • Hugh McGuire says:

      John, a few notes:

      1. Zero-cost copying & distribution. Bill Gates became one of the richest men in the world based largely on a business built up prior to near-ubiquitous broadband access, and based on two products: Windows Operating System, and MS Office, both of which have lost significant market share to free alternatives (see, eg, google docs). My guess is that if you asked Bill Gates what the future of his business is, he would not say: selling individual instances of software to consumers.

      2. Supply and Demand. What’s changed is that anyone can publish for free, and anyone can download any book from anywhere, any time. Compare that to 10 years ago, where:
      a) it was expensive to publish a book
      b) you had to go to a book store to buy a book

      so readers now have access to unlimited books, and “publishers” (whoever they might be) have access to publish a book for free.

      If you don’t believe that will force prices down … well, I’m willing to bet you the average price of an ebook in 5 years that you are wrong.

  • ahniwa says:

    So do we get a Pressbooks invite code for reading through this post?

  • Hugh McGuire says:

    @ahniwa: yes! email me at support AT pressbooks dot com

  • […] What are Libraries For? by High McGuire (founder of LibriVox) (inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org) […]

  • […] at http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org (fast becoming a ‘must read’ for me), Hugh McGuire has absolutely nailed what I could only vaguely articulate.  The book is dead, long live the […]

  • Craig says:

    Fascinating article- it says so much of what I’ve been thinking but lacked the ability to express. But speaking as someone who harangued his public library staff for years about the coming of the e-book, and has now recanted, I believe that Hugh is missing 3 vital points:

    1. Print is still with us – and much loved, and has a number of real, very tangible (literally) advantages – not the least of which is the generous “drm” (prm??) rights the buyer gets with it – I can lend it, sell it, do anything I want with it once I purchase the physical copy – publishers won’t like it, but users will demand this right. (and I realize that in Hugh’s future world, this isn’t an issue as drm has disappeared – but my guess that this is a very long way off)

    2. Lack of retrospective digitization – the assumption that “everything is digitized” (or will be, or can be, or should be) is just incorrect. A small example – a co-operative I am involved with wanted to build a long term shared print storage facility. The Board asked for a comparison of alternatives – the cost to store 2 million print vol in ideal conditions = $ 13 million. The cost to digitize 2 million vol = $ 54 mill. The facility is now built, and open for business. My library filled its allocation 2 days after opening.

    3. The copyright quagmire – for the world beyond North America, the Google Books Settlement is a copyright curiosity – but it will not apply (even when Google gets its way) to the rest of the world. And that doesn’t even touch on drm.

    My prediction – “e” will grow – considerably – but print (especially legacy print) will only shrink marginally.

  • John says:

    I found this an interesting and useful analysis.

    As Hugh’s examples of fake friction show, the R in DRM stands for Restrictions, not Rights. To use the word Rights is to use the propaganda of those who wish to impose artificial scarcity on an infinitely renewable digital resource. The recent example of HarperCollins proposing that an ebook has “worn out” after it has been borrowed 26 times, and must be replaced, is heroic in its stupidity. “Pretend it’s print, but only when it suits us” is unlikely to be a winning strategy for either libraries or publishers. In passively accepting imposition of DRM on ebooks, libraries are at risk of cooperating in their own demise and are acting against the best interests of their patrons.

    My other comment is that I’m not sure demand is quite as inelastic as Hugh proposes. Everyone I know who has some kind of ereading device says they are reading more than ever and finding new places in their day to read. This is only anecdotal evidence, and it would be interesting to find out how representative their experience is. But I agree growth in supply will far outstrip any growth in demand.

    The most worrying trend, I think, is that “fake friction” is being written into international treaties like the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement and the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement. These essentially require signatories to pass legislation to protect analogue business models which the digital world has made obsolete. I think Hugh is right that you can’t fight the physics for ever, but it will be a long and bloody battle.

    I strongly endorse Lindsay S C that libraries “fight for intellectual freedom, defend free speech and expression, and stand up to censorship”. How ought libraries do this in the future? Perhaps a good start might be to say no to DRM.

    • John says:

      @John
      There has been a lot of what you call “fake friction” in our economy for the last 200 years. Patents and copyrights, which have been with us since our founding fathers, restrict people from copying ideas so that the inventor has exclusive rights to make money from his/her inventions. That is not “natural,” (any idea can be copied) but a lot people think that it is right to give inventors a reward for developing something new.

      It is ridiculous to talk about the “laws of physics” in this debate. We not talking about nature; we are talking about a social and moral values and how rights should be distributed. The goal should be to get the right balance between the rights of an author to control his creation and the rights of society to use and share his/her creation with others.

      • John says:

        The physics are relevant because we now have the most efficient copying machine ever invented called the Internet. When the marginal cost of making a perfect digital copy is effectively zero, this fundamentally changes the landscape for writers and readers alike. I agree about the need to get the right balance, but we ought to do this in a way that takes account of physical reality, not by creating artificial scarcity.

        Your founding fathers (and the Statute of Anne before them) were from an age when copying was expensive and hard. As Craig notes, we readers get more rights with a paper book than we do with an ebook; copying an ebook is easy and cheap, so it comes with more restrictions. This strikes me as perverse and unsustainable, regardless of our social and moral values. In my country, the desire to impose digital restrictions has led to a law where those accused of online copyright infringement are assumed guilty and required to prove their innocence. Is this the world we want to live in?

        • john says:

          Two responses:

          1. To answer your question at the end. No, I definitely would not want to live in that world. I would hate to live in a country where people are presumed guilty for using and sharing ideas. But I also would not want to live in the world that Hugh predicts — in which all books are free and authors have no way to get paid for their creative efforts. Are those two extremes the only choices that we have? I don’t think so.

          2. I apologize for the implicit cultural imperialism of writing “our” founding fathers in my response to your comment. I shouldn’t assume that I am writing for people from my own country on the Internet.

          But, in some ways, my error illustrates my point. Different countries have different laws and different social conventions, all of which are “artificial” and impose restrictions on us that we wouldn’t face in the state of nature. Our goal should be to create the right artificial restrictions — those that are most beneficial to society. I agree with you that current Intellectual Property laws give way too much power to IP owners, but I think that they can be fixed without going to the other extreme and eliminating all of them as unnatural.

  • Hugh McGuire says:

    @craig: I’m not saying that print is going away, I’m saying that adult casual reading will move to ebooks, with lots of consequences. Not least of which is a growing lack of interest from readers for what the public library provides – assuming (hopefully incorrectly) it mainly provides “access to books.”

    And unless libraries adjust their budgets, appeals to the public, and the services they provide in consequence, then they’ll whither, which no one wants to happen.

  • […] What are Libraries For? | In the Library with the Lead Pipe […]

  • Corey says:

    I have read several articles this year trumpeting the end of print books in libraries and how libraries will be irrelevant once that happens. The authors seem to think that this is something those of us in the profession should be gravely worried about. What will we do with our libraries when the public no longer wants to read books in paper format anymore? Those who work in libraries know that we do much more than just circulate books. There are two reasons I think libraries will be around and vital in the future (and still have print books). The first reason is that libraries have evolved as formats have. If you are as old as me you will remember libraries having LP collections; when those were superseded by cassettes, we collected those, when those were superseded by CDs we got those. When people became interested in listening to books instead of reading them we started circulating audio books. Libraries aren’t tied to a format; they are an equalizer and a community resource. As long as authors want to write and be paid for it, there will always be community members who want to read it, but don’t want to pay the full price for it. As long as that is the case, public libraries will have a place. We allow the have-nots to have access to the same media resources as the haves because we are a big (or small) institution that has the purchasing power to level the playing field for everyone. You can’t afford to buy it, or don’t want to spend your own money on it, the library can provide it for you. Libraries will only need to radically change if publishing houses and authors decide they want to provide their services for free. In that case, the library will morph into some other community resource, I’m sure. But the death of the library as it is today is not imminent.

    Secondly, I’m not convinced that the popularity of ebooks is the death knell for print books. Motion pictures did not make live theater extinct; videotapes did not make going to movies a thing of the past. People still go to live theater, watch movies in movie theaters, and watch them at home on their televisions. I think reading formats are more similar to historical changes in theater than they are like the evolution of music audio formats. As I mentioned earlier in the article, libraries no longer carry LPs (though they are making a comeback and some patrons still wish we had them), or cassette tapes because the CD format was far superior to its predecessors in both quality of recording and durability. Ebooks are neither of higher quality nor more durable than printed books, so I think the two will continue to coexist for centuries. The real question for libraries will be what percentage of the budget to spend on each. Public libraries are not on their deathbeds. They will survive and morph into what their community needs as long as communities are willing to support them.

  • […] Bibliotheek Belangrijk om ons af te vragen:  What are Libraries For?   (Hugh McGuire)  Interessante gedachten:  ‘How you do something does not define why you exist’. We moeten ons meer beraden op waarom we er zijn: niet om gratis te verstrekken, maar voor archivering, ruimte bieden aan de gemeenschap ‘Indeed the role of libraries as curators, editors, and selectors will just grow in importance as the sea of bits and bytes continues to rise around us.’ Rick Anderson uit Utah op UKSG (waar ik helaas niet was) zei  -aangehaald door Zeemanspraat in  Gutenberg Terror :  ‘Purpose of the library is not to be a wonderful collection, but to provide information what users want’.  En Brad Meyer zei daar  ‘Stay True to Your Function, Let Go of the Form’.    ‘Libraries make no sense in the future,’ says Mike Shatzkin of Idea Logical Company, a well-known publishing consultant maar:  There will be an ongoing need for librarians.  Een heel ander uitgangspunt is dat we misschien wel geen bibliothecarissen meer nodig hebben maar IT Geeks:   A Library without Librarians? The Opinion of a PhD-Librarian on the Jeffrey Trzeciak Controversy( Laika’s MedLibLog) ‘Have all those furious librarians bothered to listen to the entire speech or do they rely on one annoyed librarian as their source? —-I wonder whether the medical library of McMasters, famous for its critical appraisals and search filters (PubMed clinical queries) would now concentrate on gaming or museum function only. As a matter of fact, it is hard to imagine’.  De vraag blijft Can libraries survive in a digital world? (BBC news video en artikel) of is er sprake van De overbodige bibliotheek  (2.0 Drops over het artikel van Mackenzie Owen in IP).  Maar  ‘De walvisjacht op bibliotheken is al een tijdje geopend en het ziet er  naar uit dat er over een aantal jaren, net als bij walvissen, een  beperkt aantal van zal overblijven’ zegt Jan Klerk: Is veel ook lekker? Betekenisvolle selecties versus gestapel in de retail. Ik vrees t ook… […]

  • […] me to contact Hugh now is his terrific guest piece What are Libraries For? in the outstanding blog In the Library with the Leadpipe (subtitled: The murder victim? Your library assumptions. Suspects? It could have been any of us.)  […]

  • […] Wilk invited me to his Publishing Talks Podcast, to about LibriVox, iambik, libraries, PressBooks, and general future of publishing […]

  • […] by the velvet-voiced David Wilk to his Publishing Talks Podcast, to talk about LibriVox, iambik, libraries, PressBooks, and general future of publishing […]

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