Won’t that put you out of business? Library Adaptation

Over Christmas, I received a shiny new gift: a Barnes & Noble NOOKcolor e-reader. During vacation, I was showing family and friends my latest gadget when my (always astute) dad commented: Won’t that put you out of business?

Now there’s a question! Cue the elevator speech. How do libraries adapt to the e-reader market? The recent Borders bookstore bankruptcy (like the alliteration?), though attributed as much to mismanagement and missed opportunities, has also seen its sales done in with the public’s appetite for e-readers. Just last month, Amazon reported that its Kindle books have outsold paperback books. So, what’s a library to do?

  • Loan out e-readers – Let people test them out and decide what they like. Load some popular books onto the device and let users take it for a spin. Despite prices coming down, I still think of an e-reader as a ‘luxury item.’ Loaning out e-readers follows the library tradition of making materials accessible to everyone. The library at Southern New Hampshire University, where I used to work, loans out Amazon Kindles and Sony e-book readers. A user can select an e-book (library will purchase, up to $25) from the Amazon or Sony e-book store and the library loads the e-book onto the e-reader and checks it out to the patron. Of course the library lending of e-readers is a sticky wicket, as discussed by Peter Hirtle on LawLibrary Blog, Meredith Farkas in American Libraries, Audrey Watters on ReadWriteWeb, and even back to 2009 in Library Journal.
  • Library as the “public square” – this is not new, but WE know that. Does the general public? We must continue with our outreach and marketing efforts. How do we reach out to people like my dad who made the comment about putting libraries out of business? He rarely visits his local public library. But in fact the last time he DID visit was when he was invited to the library’s “hobby night” show. It featured townspeople and their hobbies–baseball cards, quilts, artwork, etc.  (my dad is an antique fishing lure collector). Libraries are historically busy during economic downturns. We need to emphasize our free services: books & media for check-out, community programs, computer classes, job hunting & resume help, etc. Just today, my city library – Appleton Public Library (WI) – was conducting or hosting: exercise classes, reading programs for children, crafting time, a movie screening (Secretariat), story time for autistic children, and a Wisconsin authors meet n’ greet. The “Anythink” libraries concept in Colorado is another great example (just don’t call me a guide; I’m a librarian!).
  • Learning and Technology – Libraries were one of the first institutions to bring the Internet as we know it to the masses. Keeping with this tradition is important, too. There are still a lot of people on the wrong side of the digital divide. A library helps provide access to computers and technology. Free public wi-fi at all libraries would be start–and a huge promotional tool for a community. But it takes fund raising, grants, and political lobbying to do it. I’d like to see more colleges and universities partnering with public libraries for services: the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library serving the city of San Jose, CA and San Jose State University; the Cole Library serving Mt. Vernon, IA and Cornell College; and Cy-Fair College Library, serving the Harris County (TX) Public Library system and one of the community colleges in the Lone Star College System, come to mind. Universities–particularly ones that may not have campuses located conveniently for working adults–should collaborate with public libraries for learning spaces. In academic libraries, offering up the latest software and technology to assist in collaborative student work should become a priority.

So, should libraries still buy paper books? Absolutely. That’s not going away. And it shouldn’t. But we need to reach out, adapt, and engage. What are your thoughts?