This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

April 26, 2007 - eBooks Fail to Capture Public Library Market

On the one hand, how could they fail to be popular? Electronic books (ebooks) would seem to have clear advantages over paper. No more dog ears or gum wrappers -- you just create an electronic bookmark, or search the whole book for some phrase.

Some of the ebook readers -- whether the now vanished RocketBook or Sony's new entry into the market -- can hold a dozen titles or more. So in one paperback size package, it might be possible to cram, for instance, a whole summer's worth of light reading.

For the businessman, an ereader might contain a traveling professional tool chest of manuals; for the student, a semester's worth of textbooks. This would be far preferable to the 30 pound backpack my middle school-age son carries around.

Yet ebooks are regarded, in the general consumer or public library market, as a failure. They've never taken off. Why?

There are several factors.

First, most ebooks are currently accessed through computer monitors. I know a lot of tech savvy people, but I have yet to meet anyone who has read an entire book this way. Onscreen resolution is far "dottier" than print on paper. Moreover, backlit text tends to hypnotize the eye. People blink less, which leads to eye fatigue. Good posture at a computer isn't as comfortable as slouching on the couch with a paperback.

Second, there is no ubiquitous, cost-effective reader. The Sony reader, featuring "electronic ink," seems to have solved the resolution issue. Its text is clear, legible, and with one button, jumps up to large print.

But the Sony ebook reader also costs between $350-$500. I bought one to put it through its paces, but found that I was reluctant to take it on a trip. It's not a big deal if I lose a paperback. But I'd hate to lose a $350 electronic device. Or have it run out of battery power. Or get caught in the rain. And Sony has yet to capture significant market share.

Third, the publishing industry continues to struggle with "digital rights management." This involves various schemes to prevent the copying and redistribution of electronic content. That just adds inconvenience to a process that already involves computers, cables, and battery rechargers.

Because of these factors, ebooks tend to serve as online reference tools. People use them more the way scholars and researchers do -- as always available, searchable storehouses of text snippets.

But this raises a fourth barrier to adoption: the search interface. For the average public library patron, it is far easier to search Google than to log into some ebook website, select a title, then search it.

The experience of the Douglas County Libraries parallels that of other Colorado libraries.

* We bought a set of ebooks through a cooperative purchase -- some 500 titles from netLibrary. The titles were chosen to appeal to the "quick research" mind: cookbooks, how-to manuals, sports encyclopedias and trivia, computer manuals, business guides, gardening, and pet care books.

* We advertised them through our usual sources (newspaper, fliers, website).

* We integrated them into our catalogs. So clicking a link in the catalog would take the patron to the full content online.

* We monitored their use, and quickly discovered that although the catalog link helped, a single publisher seemed to account for most of our ebook activity: Cliff's Notes. I'm guessing that our audience was high school students, the night before the big test on a book they'd never gotten around to reading. If the other titles were print, we would have "weeded" them from our collection after the first year. They didn't appeal to our patrons.

* We added other packages of ebooks, in particular, a collection of titles by the Gale publishing company. It had two compelling features: a good collection of authoritative reference titles, and an interface that allowed searching of the whole collection at once. I think of it as Google on steroids: focused and reliable. It is used, though perhaps mostly by our own staff.

So where are public libraries today?

It is clear that the digital book content most in demand by public library patrons is not text, but audio. It is also clear that the most desired audio format is that used by the Apple iPod, which has captured significant market share.

And it's clear that the ebook, for the general public, is still a good idea that has yet to translate into a compelling product.

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