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According to a 2010 Perceptions of Libraries study from OCLC, books remain the brand of the public library.1 Simply put, when people surveyed for the study think of the public library, they think book. This broadening of the definition of book complicates one of the primary functions of the public library, which is connecting people to information, education, and enrichment (mostly in the form of books) at no direct cost to the seeker as a taxfunded public good. What happens when this primary function undergoes a dramatic shift, especially when it’s not driven by the library, but by the marketplace? A physical book is mostly one thing––a near-perfect technology to deliver the printed word.
To the consumer or library patron, an e-reader is a cool, handy device to access and read books. The shift to digital is sometimes accompanied by talk about the relevance (or perceived lack thereof) of the public library in the modern age.
As libraries, we wring our hands every time someone who should know better questions the relevance or purpose of the library. is the companion website to the bi-monthly print publication “Public Libraries,” the official magazine of the Public Library Association.
PL and PLonline are the only industry publications focused entirely on public libraries and public librarians. As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below.
There are a few things about reading (specifically books) that have improved since the advent of the online electronic book, or ebook as it’s known today.
Project Gutenberg is a great project that has brought many open literary works to digital print making it possible for anyone to read books for free online. These ebooks are totally free to read online or download but if you enjoy the resource and have the means, they accept donations. The cool part about Google eBooks is that they aren’t necessarily stored on your computer or other devices but the ebooks are accessible from the cloud. There are many more resources online where you can find ebooks for sale and websites where you can visit to read books online for free.
Gold defeated nearly 9,000 other opponents at the 2006 tournament, taking home the $12 million cash prize and the iconic bracelet. When his bracelet went on the market earlier this summer, the aptly-named Gold was cryptic about the reason why, suggesting it was against his will.
Emblazoned with 259 stones including over 7 carats of diamonds and 120 grams of white and yellow gold, the bracelet is "an absolutely amazing representation from one of the most talked about WSOP events in history," according toA the listing. The comparison and contrast––and ultimately the paradox––is reminiscent of a Zen koan (or saying) which is sometimes used to find a truth by juxtaposing two confounding statements. When information was mostly print, libraries developed the  methods and practices to find the good stuff and organize it in ways that makes efficient use of space and makes that good stuff easy to find. It’s helpful to remember that when a book is an e-book, the physical form and the function become two separate things, despite the appearance that they are one. To read (access might be a better term), you need electricity, a piece of hardware (like an e-reader), an operating system, power, and connectivity. Despite the fact that a single device can hold many licensed e-books, the devices can be costly compared to physical books. To the vendor (including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and others) an e-reader is primarily a personal, mobile storefront for their wares (just try configuring your new e-reader without setting up an account and sharing your billing information––you won’t get far).
Libraries are reporting astronomical increases in e-book checkouts (reflecting the commercial marketplace, patrons are showing love for library e-books), but when we look closer the numbers appear to be much like an increasingly growing fish in a tiny pond.

The attack isn’t?necessarily new, but if books (including ebooks) are our brand, and if we can’t get books in the same manner as we can now, for the first time ever the critics have some credible fuel for their fire.
When OverDrive announced future support for Amazon’s Kindle e-reader in spring of 2011, CNET Senior Technology Editor Brian Cooley seemed surprised that libraries were needed at all.3 In fall 2011, comedian and political commentator Bill Maher (in an interchange with Penn Jillette) said “We have the Internet. With access to e-books, music, spoken word, movies, television shows, specialized (and educational) apps, the Internet, and more, I had a terrible, horrible thought. When Cooley and Maher question libraries, the part of me not getting miffed begins to really understand how they might feel that way. In practice, in our rapidly changing world, our purpose must transcend any format that information comes in.
Books are our current brand, but in a world that is shifting to electronic forms, and to fulfill our public good role, our brand needs to change. Al Franken to Introduce Net Neutrality Bill,” YouTube video, 1:54, posted on Save the Internet, accessed Jan. For instance, the portability an electronic file brings rather than a paper book is huge, seeing as we are now able to carry hundreds of them on one computer or e-reader. Michael Hart, who created the concept of the electronic book, and therefore changing much of the way we receive text today, died September 6, 2011 at the age of 64. With the help of many volunteers, they digitized the works of bone fide publishers that are now public domain. One warning to take notice of is that these books are free in the United States because their copyright have expired but for those outside the US, check the copyright laws in your own countries before downloading and distributing them. This makes it simple to begin reading a book on one device and pick up where you left off on another.
They have a huge and growing library of free online books comprising of genres like 18th and 19th century books, European and American fiction, myths and Science Fiction. The process is actually kind of interesting because if you are a library card holder, you just log on, choose the ebooks you want to borrow (just like the physical library), and check out. Many also offer audio books in a similar fashion so check out your local library’s website for more information. Remember that copyright free ebooks are legal to read for free online, and Project Gutenburg is doing a good job of digitising them!
Of course remember that it is legal to read free books online as long as they are copyright free.
In 2010, 75 percent of Americans associated libraries with books, up from 69 percent in 2005.2 The study also points out that e-books are books.
And like a koan, exploring the paradox can be helpful in determining the truth about e-books, and the public library’s new role in this rapidly shifting world of content where, for the sake of profit, form and function appear intermingled but are really separate things. Working with the simplicity of a single physical format, libraries created a fairly complex and effective structure to select, collect, curate, and distribute physical materials. Since they are designed with a single user in mind they can be troublesome to configure in a multi-user environment. It’s in this way that the physical form (e-reader) and content (e-book) can appear as a single thing––but the relationship between the two is created to help a company prosper in the market.
E-books are really nothing like physical books, and the tools we have are not adequate to deal with them. Sales of e-books from vendors such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble are beginning to outstrip the sales of physical books. Libraries literally have less than a handful of viable options to lease, buy, or facilitate e-books for patrons.

Bless you OverDrive, 3M, Net Library, and libraries like Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries and others who have waded through the murky licensing waters to make it possible––at all––for libraries to obtain e-books to lend to patrons. I could pat myself on the back for taking an enlightened approach to the conflict, but it really doesn’t make me feel any better.
For a moment, consider the (terrible, horrible) possibility that libraries are not able to get physical books like we have in the past, and that the majority of adult titles shift to digital. I would love our brand to be “access to the resources and tools in an ever-changing world.” That means access to e-everything, including the tools and training needed for content creation, and in physical spaces. Our organized efforts, from adhoc groups to professional associations, are feeling the strain.
Also, the production of books in its online or electronic form is a lot cheaper when you think about the fact that ebooks don’t have to be printed. Most libraries attach a digital time limit making the borrowed book useless once your time limit is up. They provide a nice option when time is of the essence or when you just want to be entertained by creative voice overs, sound effects, and music that sometimes accompany them. The book remains unchanged for its entire lifecycle, which for many libraries is a fairly long time.
The content pretty much stays the same, but the hardware (with its ongoing obsolescence cycle) runs in and out of our lives at a brisk pace.
Add to it that only certain titles are available on certain platforms, circulating e-readers in a public library starts becoming complex quickly. At the same time, librarians and techs know that current e-book solutions are mostly difficult for patrons to use. What if we still only have less than a handful of imperfect choices to lease and loan to patrons.
By the time the membership understands the nature of the problem, the problem itself has sometimes changed.
I think the conversations can be two separate ones: How awesome are the in-person interactions we can offer that Amazon can’t? While the creative process to make a good book will always require a substantial investment of blood, sweat, and tears, the storage and distribution of e-books takes relatively tiny resources in comparison to physical materials. In stark contrast to physical materials, it’s often easier to purchase an e-book than it is to borrow one from the library. I also know that there is a unique value in how the library removes commerce from the equation –– no direct dollars change hands for the information. Al Franken, in his campaign against net-neutrality legislation, spoke to a group of techs at the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference and urged them to use the Internet to save the Internet.5 In that same manner, I believe we can save libraries with libraries––but only if we know where we’ve been, what’s  happening now, and how to retool libraries to take them where we want them to go. This is about how market forces could, perhaps unknowingly and without malice, wipe out the public good served by libraries.
Further, libraries buy (and own) physical materials and loan them to people, with few restrictions. The writing has been on the wall for some time, but now it’s in indelible ink: Electronic publishing is here to stay.
I recently had my own mini-crisis considering the relevance of the library, thanks to a bright shiny technology object with a black apple on the back of the case.

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