I recently came across a statement from a Lincoln (Nebraska) City Council candidate who, in my opinion, completely missed the public library’s role in society. I’m not writing this to attack him or politicize his statement, but rather to address a common misconception of what libraries are, and what services they provide to the community. These same sentiments arose in the past year when the city discussed the future of Bennett Martin, Lincoln’s downtown library. Here is the relevant passage from Nebraska Watchdog:

[Roy Christensen] said the city needs to look at what a library needs to be in the future, as opposed to “a monument to the past.” He said reads about two books a week, for example, but hasn’t read a print book for about three years. Sixty percent of Lincoln residents who use the library access it online, he said, so the city needs to look for savings that take that into account — perhaps by buying fewer printed books. “I think we need to have a discussion about what libraries ought to look like in the future,” he said.

First, I think he’s precisely on point that we need to have a discussion about what libraries ought to look like in the future. However, I think this discussion needs take place with a more nuanced understanding of what libraries are. I’ll return to this. Second, ebooks have not been kind to libraries. It is unclear at this point if significant savings can be made in the long- or short-term by transitioning to more ebooks and fewer printed books, and licensing issues complicate acquisitions. First-sale doctrine, the portion of copyright law that has allowed physical lending in the past, does not apply to digital content. Publishers have responded to e-lending in a number of ways, and many are bad news for libraries. From Forbes (Dec 2012):

The challenge to libraries is not insignificant.  Four of the six publishers are not providing eBooks to libraries at any price.  The other two – Random House and HarperCollins lead the industry with two different models.  Random House adjusted eBook pricing in 2012.  While the prices on some books were lowered, the most popular titles increased in price – some dramatically.  Author Justin Cronin’s post-apocalyptic bestseller “The Twelve” whose print edition costs the Douglas County Libraries $15.51 from Baker & Taylor and whose eBook is priced at $9.99 on Amazon was priced at $84 to Douglas County on October 31st. HarperCollins meanwhile has adopted a different model, selling eBooks to libraries at consumer prices but electronically limiting them to 26 lends and then requiring that the book be repurchased…

User access is also a concern with ebooks — users must overcome an initial cost barrier (or the library must provide them) in order to access the books. Third, his focus on printed books and his statement that libraries are “a monument to the past” denotes, in my mind, the sentiment that was echoed repeatedly in the discussion about Bennett Martin’s future: libraries are book warehouses. The library is not a free version of Barnes & Noble; it is a portal to information and knowledge, staffed with experts at navigating the landscape. Libraries have always been more than simply a building stuffed with books and documents, but the digital age has brought about more obvious departures from the bound volume. In order to fulfill this traditional role, libraries now not only provide books (digital and print), but also access to technology and the web for those without access. This service is essential to follow through with another of the library’s traditional goals: literacy. Returning to Mr. Christensen’s suggested discussion about the future of libraries, I will say this: they need to focus on digital literacy. By simply swapping out printed books for ebooks, patrons are missing out on growing quantities of essential media that do not come in EPUB format. The library must aid in the development of good digital citizens, who are capable of finding and evaluating information online, applying for jobs, creating media, accessing essential services, and conducting business on the web. The first, and most essential, part of this focus is to provide access to computers and high-speed internet to help bridge the digital divide. The second part is fostering innovation and development by keeping the technology up to date and offering assistance to those who wish to create new content. The Lincoln City Libraries are already fostering digital literacy, as is evident by the high rates of computer usage on site, and by glancing at their programming schedule. I (reluctantly) understand that the public library is not immune to budget cuts or freezes, but when we discuss the future of our libraries, we must keep in mind that digital literacy is a growing component of a library’s role, and we must look to maintain this as the budget develops. Moving from printed volumes to ebooks (if it does end up saving money) does nothing to fulfill this need.