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This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by James LaRue. (Some columns are missing; some I have not posted because I don't have a clue what the dates were.)

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

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

October 13, 2011 - who will be the last one standing?

Back in 2008, I was interviewed by a reporter. With a knowing air, he asked me if libraries were going to survive the Internet. On Feb. 27, 2009, after 150 years of operation, his newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, printed its final edition. 

Now when reporters ask me that question I answer, "You bet we'll survive. Will you?"

For awhile, it looked like only the smaller newspapers would make it, because they provided the only way for local businesses to advertise. But now even the smaller papers are feeling the pinch, shrinking their staffs to the point where a lot of news just doesn't get covered.

And if newspapers disappear, who WILL cover the local news? I worry about that. Can citizen journalism provide enough quality content? And how are they supposed to make a living?

There may also be a big shake-up in the world of book publishing. 

As it happens, libraries are a big part of that marketplace. We account for about 10% of all commercial publishing sales. For children's book, it's 40%. 

But now some publishers (four of the big six) won't sell ebooks to libraries at all. The other two will only lease them. (And as I've written before, when you "buy" an ebook, odds are good you're just leasing it, too. Read the license agreement that came with your Kindle or Nook.)

These big publishing houses have made a unilateral decision that overturns centuries of precedent: they have denied ownership of content to libraries (requiring us to go through third parties to manage that content), AND raised their price to us over the straight retail cost. 

Part of that is because they believe that libraries rob them of sales. But think that through. Last year, Douglas County citizens checked out over eight and a half million items. Does anyone really think people would have bought that many?

What libraries do is ENCOURAGE sales, by letting our patrons sample lots of things, and building up their habits of reading, listening, and watching. That habit is the practice of literacy. And it's also the creation of a larger market for stories and ideas.

Over 2 million people a year visit our catalog. They're all looking for books, and we make it easier to find them. I buy a lot of books myself, but it's because I found the authors I like at the library.

Yet some publishers would be much happier bypassing the library altogether, and going with the Netflix model, now adopted by Amazon. Pay a monthly subscription fee, and read all you want! Never mind that the cost of that deal is considerably higher than what you'll pay to a library, and you still won't own anything.

Meanwhile, Douglas County Libraries has identified over 700 publishers who are eager to sell to us. And the growth of self-publishing (from 29,000 titles in 2004 to over 2.7 million in 2010) has put a lot of authors out there who just might be willing to sell their ebooks to us directly. Recently, three of the top 10 bestsellers in America were self-published, so it's not like we'd be buying things people don't want to read.

Can libraries manage our own electronic content, integrating it into our existing catalogs? Indeed we can. And I've been doing a little traveling and speaking around the country lately telling other librarians how to do it, too.

So if some publishers won't sell libraries books, and self-published authors will, then libraries will start shifting their budgets away from the big houses, skipping over a whole link in the distribution chain.

If and when that happens, I think the shoe is on the other foot. It just might be the publishers, not the libraries, that can't survive the rise of the World Wide Web and the ebook.

Wouldn't it be ironic if libraries were the last ones standing?

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LaRue's Views are his own.

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