Kindle for everyone?
August 5, 2010 11:21 AM   Subscribe

It's hard to ignore the Kindle and e-book readers in general and while I am not against the technology, as a huge believer in, user and supporter of The Public Library I am a little concerned about what this kind of technology will do to access for all. How does the Kindle etc fit into the equation?

I don't need to or want to own all the books and materials I read/use and I want a large selection of materials, current and historic, available to me and to everyone. I love everything about The Public Library. How is Kindle going to fit into this? What's it going to do to materials in more traditional formats and to Public Libraries in general?
posted by nnk to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Kindles in Libraries:
Texas A&M
New Jersey

posted by blue_beetle at 11:26 AM on August 5, 2010

Seems like some libraries are already loaning Kindles out.

My library system allows people to download ebooks and audiobooks, but the functionality is absolutely ridiculous to use.

I don't think we're moving toward a future where public libraries will be destroyed by software systems like Kindle. Librarians are smart people and seem to work together to find solutions where there didn't appear to be any before.

Personally, I'm trying to liquidate an entire bookshelf this year as I move to ebooks on my Kindle devices (iPod Touch and Desktop Mac for now). I also read Gutenberg and Wikipedia like crazy.

I think ebooks in general are making the future brighter. I know people are afraid that you'll need a credit card to read anything, say, 50 years into the future, but I'm sure librarians (or whatever they'll be called in the future?) will help us all find a way around it.
posted by circular at 11:31 AM on August 5, 2010

Buying books and borrowing them are still different categories. I don't think the e-readers themselves are direct competition. I know there are other reasons people don't use public libraries as much as they used to, so there are definitely funding issues there, but I don't think it's the Kindle killing libraries.

I have a feeling I'm not grokking your question, actually. To me, the question would be something like "What is the Kindle going to do to bookstores/used bookstores?" If you're the sort of person to order a book off of Amazon or run to the bookstore when something strikes your fancy rather than go to the library, I don't see how being able to download it onto a Kindle is going to further stop you from going to the library. You're *already* not using the library. If you do like to check stuff out from the library before you buy it, you're probably still going to do the same thing (assuming you have impulse control).

The digitizing of media does seem to have changed the way many libraries operate, but that's not really specifically an e-reader thing. If all e-readers disappeared tomorrow, our society would not stop being increasingly digitized and our libraries and archives computer-centric.
posted by wending my way at 11:31 AM on August 5, 2010

I never use the library, and I refuse to buy physical books. The only books I read are the ones that are available for the kindle or Apple's ibooks.

I have little sympathy or plight for the authors/publishers who don't make their works available in digital form.
posted by dfriedman at 11:34 AM on August 5, 2010

Response by poster: circular - I do have faith in librarians, I don't have as much faith in the world of commerce embracing broad access for people who can't or won't pay - especially in a society such as ours where the gap between rich and poor is widening. I realize that there are corporations that are (google) making huge efforts to digitize material, but what will that mean - they still have control over access.

Libraries and bookstores have co-existed for quite some time. I am not as interested in what digitizing might do to bookstores - as long as those who produce content are still fairly compensated for what they produce and The Catalog of what's available isn't diminished and it's all still readily available.

I realize the revolution is coming - I am just trying to get a clue about how it's going to manifest, especially since I am pretty happy with the way things have been my whole life.
posted by nnk at 11:44 AM on August 5, 2010

A big obstacle to getting a Kindle (or competing e-reader) for me has been my love of using the library (or, less charitably, my inner cheapskate). Most books that I read for enjoyment are books that I only intend to read once, and so borrowing from the library is often a better choice. This is especially true since I'm a voracious reader (especially when traveling) and often read 2-3 books on a short work-related trip. (I'm also still suffering the after-effects of the nomadism common to students, so accumulating books is not something I take lightly). Lately, I've been buying more books because the wait time at the library for anything remotely recent has gotten longer, and I'm having a harder time than I used to finding older books that I want to read. That having been said, I would love to switch to an e-reader to lighten my load while traveling. I'm fine with buying books I would have bought otherwise, but I'm not so keen on buying Kindle versions of books which are readily available at the library.

I do recognize that some books have e-lending programs, but my local library is not among them and the ones I've seen seem quite limited. It seems as though these could be expanded (and at a reasonable cost), but I would imagine that IP/DRM issues make this a scary thought for publishers.

tl;dr- I've personally been waiting for something akin to a legitimate e-pub (or Kindle) library to adopt.
posted by JMOZ at 11:46 AM on August 5, 2010

Response by poster: JMOZ has said more clearly much of what I am thinking. On top of which I just love the institution of the Public Library and what it stands for.
posted by nnk at 11:50 AM on August 5, 2010

It's a practical certainty that electronic books ("e-books") are coming to public libraries. The question is how the formats will be supported, given the various flavors of digital-rights management (DRM) that is added to discourage copyright infringement—copying.

Seattle Public Library uses two proprietary electronic formats for e-book distribution, which the Kindle does not natively support. Seattle has probably one of the leading public systems in the country. If that indicates its opinion about Amazon's platform, for what is a local tech company, their decision was made despite the apparent, general popularity of Kindle hardware and software.

There are options for Kindle users who wish to access the Seattle Public Library resources, which involve using software tools of dubious legality. Beyond that, defeating DRM with these tools requires a level of technical sophistication that most end users simply do not possess.

In the larger picture, e-book formats are in flux as B+N, Amazon, Apple and others jostle for control of the market with their own proprietary products. So, while e-books are coming to libraries, most public libraries are probably waiting for formats to settle out so that they don't get locked in to the equivalent of a vast collection of Betamax tapes. It's probably hard to say who will be the market winner at this time.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:54 AM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Since my comments resonated with nnk, I thought I might elaborate on the societal aspects, which I largely ignored.

From a societal point-of-view, I wonder how Kindle adoption might have negative effects on the library. One of the greatest things about the public library is the egalitarian nature; more than any other institution with the possible exception of public schools, the library offers the opportunity for (free!) education for all.

I worry about the future of libraries because I look at the public schools in Delaware, which are, to be blunt, not good. Our property taxes are quite low, and we have mediocre (or worse) schools as a result. Most middle class (and up) people I know end up sending their kids to private schools. As a result, there is insufficiency concern (or outrage) about the quality of the public school system. I use the library because I'm afraid that if it's not being used by a wide cross-section of the population, funding will decline even more. (And, as mentioned above, because I'm cheap and don't want to pay $10+ for a book that might only be read once. This also has a clear negative environmental impact.)

My wife is a librarian (albeit special libraries rather than public), so I don't have such a misguided romantic notion about how libraries work as to oppose (even aggressive) weeding of collections. At the same time, I don't want to see libraries shrinking to become a place only for bestsellers (with long waiting lists) and a handful of how-to books from the 1970's. For the libraries to remain vibrant, they have to prove their relevance, and a middle-class flight to Kindles (for the sake of convenience) would jeopardize that.

Of course, if libraries could lend e-books in a practical way (not necessarily the hardware), it can remain highly relevant and serve the needs of patrons like me. But, I don't want that to be at the expense of those who can't afford the hardware in the first place, which leads to a significant dilemma; historically, the lack of needed equipment for reading meant that a library could easily serve diverse constituents. Of course, one can look at the increasing prevalence of VHS, CD, and now DVD loans at libraries as a model- as these technologies became more wide-spread, a wider range of the library's patronage could take advantage, and therefore their collections grew. I suppose/hope the same might happen with e-books.

A significant challenge with e-books, of course, is the ease of copying without effective copy protection. This is the same problem we see with DVDs, etc, but now the content is more readily decoupled from the media on which it arrives (if any!). I'm not sure I know what the best answer is. I'm very dubious of DRM (especially for privately purchased media), but perhaps there's some reasonable form which would work for libraries? In principle, Amazon's Kindle distribution technology could handle this, but the fact that any real lending of e-books is likely to cut into Amazon's bottom line is a very strong disincentive for Amazon to get into this business. In fact, from what I've seen, the only e-reader that permits lending is the Nook, and what I've heard of its implementation sounds a bit pitiful.

Waaaaaay TL;DR- E-readers are an interesting technology, but there's a potential for significant impact on public libraries. Effective mitigation strategies need to be developed but don't seem to be there as of yet. (As far as I can tell). That having been said, Librarians are (as circular points out) smart people, and I expect innovative and effective approaches will emerge in the coming years, especially as e-reader prices fall and they become more accessible to a wider range of people.
posted by JMOZ at 12:15 PM on August 5, 2010

Best answer: The system I work for is part of a consortium, which basically collects library resources and expertise to handle difficult situations like e-books. Our current software solution is... less than elegant, and generally difficult to use.

We still push a lot of pulp, and I honestly don't see that going away any time soon. People will always want paperbacks, I think, and I can almost guarantee that most public libraries will maintain print collections at least into the near future.

Children's books will never be digital only, and I don't think any system will be short sighted enough to dump its print media whole-sale. Because of how wedded our patrons are to print, the transition will be a long process, and I have a feeling that there will always be non-proprietary, open formats that accomodate library use.

What would I like to see? A huge public database of digitized work. When someone wants something that's held by the Library of Congress (Alchemical Symbols in the Middle Ages, for example) then we have a cheap shell-system that we can hand them. We can flash the title onto its memory, they have it for three weeks, and then return the system when they're done. We format the shell, and it's ready for the next patron who wants some esoteric loan from outside the system.

Right now they would have to pay $5 dollars for a direct loan - and that's only if the holding institution was willing to part with a rare and costly book.

So there's the library apocalypse scenario, but also a scenario where information becomes much easier to distribute and lend.
posted by codacorolla at 12:18 PM on August 5, 2010

Best answer: How does the Kindle etc fit into the equation?

Currently, it doesn't. I just went to a college library on Florida that claims to have the largest number of circulating ebook readers in the US. They are kludging something together and showed me how the system works. It's super complicated. Among the problems.

1. purchasing a title means that it can only be available on six devices. So, even though they have a few dozen Kindles, each one has different stuff.
2. There is a different between an ebook as an idea, and an ebook reader as a consumer product. Currently it's tough and hackie to put other content on a kindle. People seem to be doing the most with the Kindle product on the ipad. I saw some ebooks designed specifically for the ipad and they were terrible. They were neat as proof-of-concept, but otherwise crappy
3. the licensing-not-purchasing model doesn't really work with the we-lend-for-free model [it works better for books for the visually disabled where you don't have to worry about copyright stuff]. ebooks are not designed for libraries. The Kindle licensing model doesn't really allow for libraries and the bulk of libraries I know who circulate Kindles have gotten special permission from Amazon.

Part of the problem also, to my mind is that there's a lot of money to be made in ebooks and a chunk of that is by making people feel that they are actually buying a book when they buy an ebook. However, that metaphor falls apart when you look at other things you could do with a book [give it away, lend it to someone, write in the margins, whatever] and so even though libraries are one of the largest institutional purchasers of books, the ebook manufacturers are not really sucking up to libraries because it bites into their revenue stream and business model.

At the place where I saw all the ebook readers, they had a decent system worked out to circulate ebook readers [Kindles, nooks, ipads] for things that people needed temporarily, such as textbooks. They make terrific sense for academic libraries with savvier populations or something like medical libraries where up to the minute information is mission critical. For public libraries right now we're seeing a bunch of test case stuff but no model that has really stuck yet. Until that time, and there are a lot of librarians looking into that but a whole lot more with their heads in the sand, we're still sort of flailing here. I'd like to see more libraries trying to lend format-independent ebooks+readers with a ton of great public domain and free stuff to get people used to the idea, but instead we're relying on vendors to find a way to sell the stuff to us [witness audiobooks debacle] with a "checkout" model which almost by definition does not play well with DRM crap. So, I think we've got a while yet before this all shakes out. I don't care what Sony or Apple or Amazon are saying, no one's really captured the hearts and minds of librarians on this issue yet, and I don't even see any company that has really tried.
posted by jessamyn at 12:23 PM on August 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm a librarian who loans Kindles. I see them as another access device (like the classic book) for content. They allow me to easily rejigger library resources based on patron demand. Is a book suddenly popular? I can put several copies on the Kindles (often for the price of one download) to satisfy the need and will not be left with a bunch of unneeded books when the need has passed. More thoughts here.

The technology does not currently support the buy-in model, where every patron has to get their own Kindle in order to borrow Kindle materials, which is fine by me. Loaning e-documents is a whole other can of worms that can't really blossom until content middlemen get used to the idea that information wants to be free and that self-destructing, time-limited files are a klutsy workaround at best that nobody wants.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 12:24 PM on August 5, 2010

The Kindle is a closed propreitary device. It is a closed lockbox designed to facilitate the sales of books via Amazon's store.

The Nook supports all sorts of formats and its loan feature integrates with libraries that choose to support it. The Chicago public library's ebook site is here and you can see their lending system for ebooks. I don't think it uses the native sharing protocol of the Nook, instead it uses the popular epub format, which the Kindle does not support. Although there are 3rd party tools to convert.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:14 PM on August 5, 2010

Once some megacorp gets their head around using DRM for good and not evil, then I can see how libraries can easily loan books - and probably music - for a nominal amount.

Wasn't it Apple's fairplay DRM that didn't allowed copying, could restrict the number of devices the media is played on, could restrict the length of time you had it, and could restrict the number of times it's played?
If you could "borrow" (rent is probably a better word) an e-book for 50p from the library, read it on your Kindle over the course of 1 month, and then at the end of the month it would vanish, then why wouldn't you use the service more often? Price is just a random number, not necessarily an optimum price, but I'd expect it around there. The library could even monitor how many e-books you're renting in any given period and perhaps restrict you (so you're not getting 3 per night and just copying them).

For stuff that I've bought, rather than rented, I'd expect to not have the DRM and not have any limits on how long I had to read it - hence the higher price, although I wouldn't buy an e-book for the same - or even a remotely similar - price as the deadtree edition (since I personally prefer physical pages; opinions obviously differ).

I can see the same thing working for music - download for free, use on your one device, listen three times/two weeks whichever is sooner, and then self-delete. If you like it, you can buy it. Proper, legitimate and easy try-before-you buy. This would easily stop the vast majority of casual piracy of music since there'd be no benefit to 'risking' a visit to the BitTorrent sites.

Unfortunately I can't really see anyone biting the bullet and going this way, and although there are a lot of libraries around the globe, they'd have to seriously have to get their act together as one large collective in order to put the appropriate pressure on the book publishers.
posted by Chunder at 1:25 PM on August 5, 2010

One especially cool thing about the kindle (and ebook readers in general) is that virtually all books in the public domain are free. Another cool thing: Instapaper. This obviously doesn't compare to a lending library, but I have to say I've had more and easier access to free reading material since I got my kindle last winter.

It reminds me a little of the way that getting an ipod resulted in me spending less on audible media in general (no batteries to buy, no discs to burn, easy availability of record label samplers, podcasts, and other free media).

So far this year I've read more, and better, and for less money, than I did before I had a kindle. Aside from the huge initial outlay, of course.
posted by Sara C. at 1:56 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I use my library's e-book lending system frequently. It's not the best system imaginable (the whole Overdrive model is pretty kludgey and problematic from a public access perspective) but it's usable and it gives me better access to current major-publisher books than I'd otherwise have. Their budget for e-books is limited (and they go in with a consortium of other libraries for this) but they've been as responsive to patron requests as the budget and readership allow.

It's mostly ePub or PDF (Adobe) DRM, though, so not so useful to Kindle users, who can't do ePub easily. Given that the Kindle crowd gets the vast majority of publisher freebies, what with the larger name recognition and media attention and all that, I figure it balances out for now.

For reference: MobileRead's list of e-book lending libraries.
posted by asperity at 2:54 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

My library apparently started offering e-books as of this year, though not via Kindle (you download books to your computer and use an Adobe reader). On the one hand, I found it pretty damn cool to have instant access to a title, especially one I was semi-embarrassed about being seen in public reading (self-help book). On the other, this particular title was only available electronically, which precludes access for anyone without access to a computer. Are you supposed to try and read the entire book on one of the library's computers, where there's usually a one hour or so limit and a huge waiting list? So much for access for all.
posted by medeine at 5:19 PM on August 5, 2010

I can't predict the future, but I know that right now most libraries offer branded versions of NetLibrary, an e-book service that is offered by OCLC (the international organization of libraries). Their software lets you virtually borrow e-books for a set period, and keeps track of virtual "copies" of books for billing purposes; sadly it doesn't really work very well.

It's possible that NetLibrary will get much better and make deals with the e-reader manufacturers to support their own weird file formats. Otherwise, libraries are going to have serious trouble getting patrons if e-readers get in to the $50 range and there's no way to borrow library books on them.
posted by miyabo at 8:17 PM on August 5, 2010

I got a nook (which I returned because it was defective) and now have a Sony reader, and a big reason I picked those as opposed to the Kindle is the ease of checking out books from the library (I live in Chicago BTW).

Between the library and sites like Project Gutenberg and Munseys, I have lots of free reading to do.
posted by bibliogrrl at 7:32 AM on August 6, 2010

I'm liking SafariBooksOnline, and am considering a ipad to read technical books. It's a version of the licensing model for content, and it works for technical information that is outdated quickly. But for books that I want to add to my library, whether that's physical or digital, I want to own the book, and proprietary or DRMed versions are not acceptable.
posted by theora55 at 9:47 AM on August 6, 2010

Best answer: I think the mistake a lot of people make is in treating the ebook/paper issue an a zero-sum end game either/or situation. There is room for, and demand for, both kinds of product and both have different uses. For example, cookbooks or art books or children's books will probably continue to be suited to paper, at least for the next generation or so. Mass market paperbacks are very handy in ebook. Some people, like my stepfather, have physical issues which prevent him from using paper books so a library focused solely on that would not serve his needs. Or how about a disabled person who finds their mobility limited by inclement winter weather? They can order an ebook from home! Other people, like the very young children I teach, learn important literary concepts by manipulating the paper, the same way children learn to count before they learn to use a calculator. Two separate groups of patrons, two separate groups of needs.

Most articles I have read on the current state of the public library system in my area focus on their role not just as a 'repository for books' but as a community meeting space. That will not change. With the wealth of material out there these days---a million free books just on Google, how is that for accessibility!---there will always be demand for educated curators to help people filter. Our local library in my area also serves as an important clearinghouse for information about local community organizations. They can help guide an immigrant to services that can assist them with life in their new country, they can direct a parent to resources that can help them with their children. Libraries---in my area, anyway---have never been JUST about storing paper books on shelves.
posted by JoannaC at 7:36 PM on August 6, 2010

Response by poster: Just came across this: "Ebook restrictions leave libraries facing virtual lockout"
posted by nnk at 8:18 AM on November 1, 2010

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