There are very few things that will divide readers as strongly as the ebook/print book debate. Once upon a time, librarians were just like that: either print purists or digital radicals. Even right up until the pandemic, patrons of libraries tended to be somewhat unaware that library ebooks existed at all. There wasn’t many, partially owing to the fact that they’re heckin’ expensive, and many patrons just didn’t know how to ebook. Anyway, much of the public still thinks “quaint paper warehouse” when they hear “public library.” That includes some librarians. Believe it or not, some people still get into the profession because they just like books.
The Mission of Libraries is Not Books
But ultimately, the mission of the library is not books — or, at least, paper ones. The real mission — the one that the books have been supporting all these years — is to make sure that information is available. The paper codex has been the most efficient way to make this happen for several hundred years, but fetishizing printed text over library ebooks defeats the actual purpose of a library.
Arguments by librarians against ebooks tend to be either idealistic or budgetary. Either someone has a personal preference for paper and is willing to die on that hill if it means imposing their predilection on the rest of the known universe, or the exorbitant price of loanable ebooks deters administrators. It’s true that library budgets aren’t generally getting bigger fast enough to support growing demand for ebook lending. Dismissing a ride or die paper fan isn’t hard, but money is an immovable obstacle for many library branches. It’s hard to argue that librarians should just find the money. It’s often not there.
But maybe it should be. I argue that now, and probably increasingly, library ebooks are among a community’s most important assets, worthy — in fact, needful — of increased support from funding agencies. Whether the patrons you serve want the latest potboiler or a book about escaping an abusive relationship, this is a critical service. It’s only going to get more critical with time.
Why library ebooks?
Consider that potboiler. The patron who wants that may be elderly and dealing with limited mobility. It’ll get harder and harder for this person to get the mental stimulation that will help keep their mind healthy. Being able to magically acquire a book through the ether may dramatically improve their life. It could even extend their good years. If this patron’s sight is also failing, e-lending may be a good way for them to get audiobooks, too.
Then there’s the patron who wants a very serious title about escaping abuse. This person certainly could put a print book on hold at the library, but that would require someone — some human, likely from their own community — to lay eyes on it. That alone could be a major deterrent to the patron getting the information that they need! Even if the library worker who places their hold takes their secrets to the grave, holds shelves are often placed wherever there’s room, be that right behind the circulation desk or in a convenient, publicly-accessible hallway. Riffling through or rubbernecking is not necessarily preventable. Who wants the whole town to know their problems? More to the point, who wants their selfsame abusive spouse to come in and see that they’re planning an escape?
Library ebooks let people browse with near-perfect anonymity. They’re fairly safe — all you need is a phone — and generally compatible with assistive software. Above all, it’s another option. When you’re serving the public, you quickly learn that one solution doesn’t cover everyone’s needs. Librarians generally consider Playaways a headache because they’re buggy and battery-hungry, but for little kids and patrons with dexterity problems, they’re perfect. So we stock them. They’re a good solution for somebody and an additional option for everybody.
Stack all of this on top of a pandemic rush for digital content and it becomes clear that ebooks are a good fallback for all kinds of bad situations. Inclement weather, travel, emergencies, global plagues — none of these can stop you from downloading a book onto your phone or ereader. If your only internet access is a shared family phone, you don’t have a car or time to go to the library, and you have to read Becoming for civics class, then you can still get that book from the library for free. This is what we’re here for. If we don’t lean into ebooks hard, then we’re not providing the public with the information lifeline that it is our responsibility to provide.
It Costs Money to be Ignorant
If all that squishy SJW stuff doesn’t move you, try this: lack of library ebooks costs money.
- The senior may decline faster without new reading material and tie up the time of emergency responders;
- The abuse victim’s violent relationship may engage the police regularly and could lead to injury or death;
- The kid downloading an assigned book on their family’s phone could lose a scholarship if they don’t have the background to write an essay. They’ll stay on public assistance, as will the family members they could have helped out of poverty in turn.
Ignorance is expensive. No community can afford it. Ebooks make a community less ignorant. It is fiscally unwise not to have them available through the library.
I don’t have a good solution to the sheer expense of loanable digital content. It’s wrong and greedy and, I think, ultimately comes from a place of corporate fear. But as much as I’d love to rail against publishers or big business or capitalism itself, none of that is going to change the fact that libraries need money for this stuff now. Ebooks are critical. They’re just going to get more and more important. Tell your mayor. Tell your town council. Tell your senator. It’s not about the books. It’s about what they do for the people who need them.
Ebook provenance is part of a much wider problem tied to digital ownership, which is well worth reading up on.