A great deal of discussion has been devoted to the role of libraries in an era when information is digitized and largely accessible free on the Internet. There is, however, a separate, looming question that will have an even greater significance: What is the role of the public library in a world where an increasing number of titles are available as paid, securely protected eBooks?
In fact, these innovations create a unique opportunity for libraries to fulfill one of their most important public missions: providing community members with free access to new books and new forms of knowledge.
To date, the discussion surrounding eBooks has largely focused on platforms and reading devices. Inevitably, what will become an issue is the extent to which eBook owners can lend their books to others. Will a generous eBook owner be able to loan his or her digital “copy” of the newest Steig Larsson to a friend, and, if so, will this loan come with the same restrictions as the physical lending process? In all likelihood, soon the answer will be “Yes.” Indeed, the Sony Reader, one of the early digital reading devices, already includes the capability for libraries to buy eBooks for the Sony platform and lend them to members for fixed periods of time. The Nook from Barnes & Noble includes the ability for users to lend eBooks to other Nook-using friends.
The sharing capabilities of the Nook and the Sony Reader are a clear harbinger of things to come. As the market matures, this lending model will become a central selling point for users who want the convenience of e-readers but the value associated with accessing the public library. From a practical perspective, this is good news for libraries. It means that they will, in fact, have a reinvigorated mission in the electronic world. Library members will be able to search eBook catalogues online and rent books in-stock. Yes, I mean in-stock. As occurs in the physical world, libraries will buy a specific number of eBooks for any title and will make only this quantity available to members. It’s my understanding this is the model Sony has already adopted and it makes sense for all concerned.
Soon, library members—from home—will log on to the Internet, go to their library’s resources, search the catalogue of available titles, and borrow on-demand. By the way, late fees will be a thing of the past. When the user borrows the book, he will have online access for a specific period of time. Once the time has elapsed, his access will automatically be revoked unless he renews the loan.
This vision may suggest that fewer people will physically enter the library premises. On the other hand, I am inclined to believe this is an opportunity to create a far larger presence for the library in the life of the community. The eBook creates an entirely new way for libraries to attract community members to their services. When users access the library catalogue in search of the latest eBook release, creative librarians will find ways to promote all of the valuable community services they offer.
Since the early days of the Republic, the lending library has played an important role in meeting the needs of readers, both young and old, at no cost. They are an important adjunct to our universal system of public education and an ongoing gateway to lifelong learning. Despite advances in technology, I foresee the continuing value of this important role.
Bruce Judson is a bestselling author and digital media innovator. He is currently Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute and a former Senior Faculty Fellow at the Yale School of Management. One innovation Judson does not mention in this article is T1Anywhere.com, one of the Web services Judson founded that provides low-cost connections to libraries throughout the United States, including rural areas.