1/27/2013

It Came to Destroy us from its Shiny Box - A Look Ahead

2012 sucked.
I spent most of it in a worked induced haze, perpetuated by other forces that shall be nameless lest they decided to end me where I stand.

Suffice to say, something did trickle into the old subconscious and flagged down the vehicle of speculative thinking, hijacked it and took it for a joy ride in my medulla oblangata. My frontal lobe was close for renovations at the time.

So here is my sad, unauthorized, barely referenced look at the impending future for the Public Library Service in Cape To.....where I am. Some of the information is purposefully vague on account of me not getting swatted by the full might of the Local Authority's power.
(Or as Darth Vader would say: pow-WAH!)

And as always, this is my own opinion.


It will make sense once you've read the whole post.

E-books and E-readers are going to kill us all, in our beds, at night while we sleep. And its all Pick n Pay's fault.

Up till last year the e-book reader was a device that public librarians were vaguely aware of. A device that wealthier borrowers would brag about while we librarians would just nod, really not give a crap and get on with the job. "Really what's to worry about," the librarian would say, "this doesn't relate to anything at all with what I do."

This is a problem you see, because currently a war is being waged in a faraway place between librarians, publishers and technology companies that will decide the fate of e-books and libraries in the future. The future in this case is 2013.

The battle, which I can conservatively compare to the pesky little hullaballo, or is it fracas, that occurred between that Fanning boy, Music Producers and something called a MP3. Read all about it here:
This perfect storm of new tech, high demand and wrong footed business interests have librarians and public libraries right on the front lines trying to push policy and money into a direction that would see patrons win i.e get them the books they want in the e-book format.
Its anything but a bloodless battle.

Libraries in the States have posted record lending numbers for ebooks.
 (Check that here.)
This is linked to increased ownership of ebook readers and devices that allow e reading. (ie phones and tablets with reading apps.)
To stay viable US Public libraries in conjunction with the ALA have had pitched battles with publishers over licensing and service fees.Overdrive, a company that provides the nut and bolts access to e-books on behalf of libraries and is the go between between libraries and publishers that provide e-books, has a virtual a monopoly on this service.  

How it works is, Overdrive is hired by the library to provide the books to the library user by allowing the user to connect to the libraries catalogue which contains all these ebooks.
The User logs into the libraries catalogue, downloads the book his/her device and after a certain amount of time the ebook erases itself off the device or the user goes back on the site and checks-in the book by clicking some button or the e-book is 'locked'

At no point are actual librarians are involved.

(BTW the file format that e-books are encoded in is epub. The mobi format belongs to Amazon. So if you have the new John Grisham, the actual ebook file name would look like this for epub - The Racketeer.epub, and Mobi - The Racketeer.mobi. Epub and Mobi are the book equivalent of what an mp3 is.)

The point of contention that is causing so much trouble is this:

Publishers insist that libraries cannot 'own' the ebooks, and Overdrive and 3M charge fees to libraries based on the publishers licensing fees that allow libraries the right to lend out a particular book a certain amount of times and thereafter either repay the yearly/monthly fee or lose the book from their catalogue. Similarly publishers can refuse to give Overdrive or 3M access to their e-books without any penalties or prior notice thus removing all of those books from the libraries 'shelves', or limit how many 'copies' can go out at a library.It boils down to to renting a library book and then after a year giving it back to the library if you don't pay. 

Its a lousy way to do business, especially considering your victi...customers are institutions that doesn't make money, and publishers and libraries are jockeying for position because e-book consumption doesn't look like its going to dimish.
Further reading: here and here.

So what's the deal with all this e-book nonsense in Public Libraries in good ole SA?
And why make a fuss about it.
Well its because of this:
and this:

So the ebook revolution is still forthcoming, no vasts amount of KOBO's seem to be wandering the streets and driving owners into coffee shops or glued onto couches at home, despite vendors like EB and Kalahari offering local ebooks in Afrikaans and cheap romance titles in english. There is no sundering of the Way of Paper Based Books.

The landscape is still as it was.
For how long though?
3 particular little bits of news have got my hackles raised:

One: the LTE network is slowly crawling into life.
Essentially the next step after 3G connectivity. Faster speeds, quicker download times. In time, cheaper rates. (One hopes)

Two: Tablet sales have exploded.
With banks offering tablets as incentives for e-banking and older(but still top of the line) model tablets becoming cheaper or being resold, its easier for people to buy tablets and do all sorts of cool things on them other than shooting at bunch of pigs with a slingshot using birds for ammunition.They can now read too.

Three: Academic publishers like Maskew Millar Longman and Pearson are locally converting all their text books and study books and guides to e-book formats. Ask them you visit the Cape Town Book Fair.
And this is what the Western Cape Education department is doing.


Four: Here is where I use the words 'unnamed source' for the first time in my life. In no way should this be taken as the last word on the matter. Loftier brains than mine could undoubtedly change their minds but the gist of the unnamed source's communication is that the Department of Education is serious considering using e-readers in all schools in the Western Cape as a means to bring down spending.

Spending per child on text books is astronomical.
From Grades 8 to 12, spending on textbooks run in excess of R2000 a child.
Consider: 7 subjects times 2 books per subject, then times again by the number of grades, and you end up with a number with way too much zeroes. What if, you give a child a KOBO, for instance, with all the study material loaded on for the subjects for that grade, or even all the grade?

Do I hear strains of: "But THEFT! will be rampant!"

The price of a basic KOBO is less than a thousand, so insurance for the device should be low, and with all schools getting the e-readers, it would literally flood the market with devices lowering their resale value considerably. They are also so interchangeable, nothing special about them except they have books on them, so why steal them at all. 
School libraries could be virtual and interactive and could be a means to meeting some of the expectations of 'a library in every school' lobbyists like Equal Education.

This is not a pipe dream. This is a serious consideration. This is a viable reality.


Now finally, what is the public libraries challenge?
Considering that this is the way that the world is moving; that the distance from trend to mainstream gets narrower and shorter each year; and contrary to popular belief, South Africa despite its inequalities and deficiencies is still vulnerable to these so-called trend shifts.

Well, consider this scenario:

The market is flushed with e-readers and e-reading apps of every type. Kids are needing study guides or different versions of texts or just wanting books to read. They get mom or dad to take them to the library and the first thing they ask is where they can download the book they want.The public librarian looks at the kid, the parents and the one other lone person in the library and goes: "You know. We haven't got that yet..... Would you like a bookmark?"

The cautionary lesson here is: Needs must.

For all the patrons who would swear blind that they prefer a real book, would give it up in a heartbeat if it meant there children could learn easier without cost being a deciding factor of quality of education. (Lower cost per child means less school fees and more money for infrastructure like teachers, librarians, classrooms, security guards, fences, school halls....)

Being sensitive to projected trends is not a public librarians strong suit, and library management, who once in a while do take their cues from the rank and file, well some rank and file, they are biblically slow to react. Invariably when they do, its too talk about talking about writing a document.

Not the bold, swift, cutting edge service I keep wishing I could be touting to my borrowers.
(We only recently got email and we're still using it wrong.)

So, what then?
Well. And I am just throwing stuff against a wall here, hoping it  sticks:
Why don't we do it ourselves?
Why not develop our own e-book delivery system? (The talky Public Library service is Cape To....I mean here.)

Its not like it wasn't done before.
The local authority in conjunction with other NGO party's developed the open source  platform that provides free internet services to the people of the Western Cape.

Its not cost prohibitive either, groups like the Shuttleworth Foundation, who live and breathe the idea of tech improving our circumstance could be a major partner that could see e-books provided free of charge to smartphones, tablets, e-readers and laptops in South Africa through a home grown open source solution.


And if you're thinking about how we going to get those still expensive e-books onto  up the catalog for loan?

Well locally produced text books and study guides should be the first things we make available. (Needs must, after all.)

We know the WCED are making their own and giving them away, why not make overtures to local publishers as well. It is cheaper to produce an e-book than an actual physical paper book.

But nothing exists in a vacuum and their has to be a leader/driving force for this endeavor; A person, or peoples, or a specific organization that has a large invested interest in a project like this, and are in a position to do a lot of good simply by having access to a lot of people who could benefit directly form an initiative like this. An organization that has access to all stakeholders and for lack of a better term, is politically bulletproof and a political bipartisan poster child for candidates of all parties.

I wonder who that could be....

Like I said: biblically slow.

*sigh*

So here I sit looking ahead at the year to come, awaiting the first announcement that the e-reading revolution has begun.

Thing is, I think it already has and we're hopelessly out of touch and far behind.

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