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I’m just a nonprofiteer in a for-profit world

In September, I signed a contract to write a book about ebooks by the end of this year. It’s a short timeline and a constantly changing subject, two issues that complement each other in a way (and are making me slowly insane in another). My interest is less in a comprehensive look at the marketplace and more in how we think about and make decisions about ebooks. On Twitter, I spend time talking to librarians who have opinions about everything ebook. In the rest of my life, I talk to librarians who are just flat-out overwhelmed by it all and who don’t feel like they have time to learn everything they would like to about ebooks. I’m writing for the latter group, but I hope the former will like the finished product, too.

I’ve been meaning to write a post about ebooks and my book project for a while and of course, Sarah’s video post gave me the kick in the pants I needed to do it. If you haven’t seen her video yet, do so. Even if you’re not of the pound-on-the-table-and-take-to-the-streets temperament, you’ll benefit from listening to her raise some excellent points.

at least we have longer arms than T-Rex

We're not dinosaurs. I hope.

The thing that drew a lot of us to this profession was the staunch nonprofitness of it. We’re not only nonprofit organizations (insert joke about not-making-a-profit librarians here), but we’re pretty strictly anti-commercial, too. Every library I’ve worked at has had a clear policy about advertising: no, thank you. Partnerships with other nonprofits in town? Sure. Cross-promotion of programs with those nonprofits? No problem. But we draw the line at commercial enterprise – a hard line. I’ve refused the sort of local crafts-people and music teachers who personally give me the warm fuzzies, but who represent the top of a slippery slope when it comes to advertising in the library.

Our relationships with vendors are equally fraught. Too often, we end up acting like, to paraphrase Sarah, the poor orphan beggars groveling for stuff. That relationship deteriorates even further once the products we’re buying seem necessary. Academic libraries have experienced this keenly with journals. Public libraries are now getting hammered with that feeling about ebooks. Increasingly, ebooks are less a whiz-bang new thing and more a standard library service. So our vendor is not just providing something new and shiny, but something core to our mission.

(Wait, I know what you’re about to say. Yes, we buy books from vendors. I should clarify – I mean vendors who also control our patron interfaces. ILS vendors, database vendors, ebook vendors. We’re not buying stuff from them so much as we’re buying access and a whole new face for the library.)

Tech trendsters at library conferences usually talk at least a little bit about products. Stuff our patrons might be buying or bringing to the library. Stuff that’s shaping their expectations of technology and services. These are things that are out of our hands, most of the time. We wait to see what Apple or Amazon drops into our worlds and try to incorporate whatever they do as intelligently as we can into library services. Sometimes, we drift too far into speculation, or we miss the boat entirely, but the intention is awareness and relevance for librarians.

As libraries started promoting creation as a library-related activity, we have started buying products based on ease of use, popularity, and cost. We have been, in effect, promoting certain technologies and products over others. I don’t think it ever felt like that, because a Flip camera doesn’t represent a core library value. But ebooks do.

A quickly changing marketplace and confusion about vendors and features makes us assess ebooks the same way we follow the product lines of technology companies. While ebooks may be at the top of every trend follower’s list, how we evaluate them requires a different approach. For people who are reading primarily ebooks, these products will simply be books from the library. We may know that they’re not conforming to the same properties as our print collection – they’re licensed, not owned; they may or may not be accessible by a third party; patron data may or may not be protected. For those patrons, that will simply be how the library works; not very much like a library at all.

Patrons may never have appreciated our diligence in removing stealthily-placed bookmarks from businesses or pamphlets left around by people trying to make it as a business consultant or chiropractor, but we do it because it’s part of what the library stands for. The (almost) complete vendor control of ebooks challenges all of our strong nonprofit instincts and library ethics. Those vendors may be very nice people. I was at a meeting today with three lovely representatives from companies selling ebooks. All three were clearly knocking themselves out to make a product that librarians and patrons will like. But they’re not a library. That’s our job and we have to find a way to keep doing it.


5 comments for “I’m just a nonprofiteer in a for-profit world”

  1. It is a fast-moving target, and one we haven’t really defined – is an ebook really a book? A digital file? Something we buy? Something we license? Tangible? Intangible? Format? Delivery? Even those of us who feel we are somewhat “in the know” are faced with as many questions as answers. I am glad to have you and the rest of my colleagues to learn from.

    Congrats on the book, I am looking forward to it!

    Posted by Kristi | October 19, 2011, 7:37 pm
  2. […] to Kate Sheehan’s post which motivated this […]

    Posted by The Corkboard | The Power Shift in Patron Privacy | October 21, 2011, 11:00 am
  3. Good point, Kristi! So far, we’re kind of sort of treating ebooks like books, except when we’re not.

    And, as people on Twitter and elsewhere have pointed out, maybe we’re overly concerned with patron privacy – maybe we just assume that they know that Amazon has access to their info and it’s not our problem. But I think that’s letting the “book” aspect slide a little too much, you know?

    And thanks, both for the congrats and for making Twitter a smarter place. We are, as you say, faced with as many questions as anything on these issues.

    Posted by kate | October 21, 2011, 11:29 am
  4. In my view, Overdrive and Amazon did just what we asked them to do. Amazon did a great job of marketing the Kindle, and they grabbed a big share of the e-reader market. We prodded Overdrive to let us loan ebooks to our Kindle owners, and they did it. Did libraries ever have direct negotiations with Amazon? I don’ think so. We’re not a party to their contract.

    Posted by sharon | October 21, 2011, 11:53 am
  5. Sharon, that’s true. And as many people are pointing out in other places, our patrons don’t care about privacy. We’ve all had the “we don’t keep track of what you’ve checked out because it’s not our business and we don’t want that data to be subpoenable” conversation.

    Where this is different is we’re not part of the conversation. I don’t think Amazon is ever going to start behaving like a library and that’s fine. But if we’re one day buying the majority of our collections as ebooks and library ethics can only apply to print books, where does that leave us?

    The issue isn’t that Amazon is behaving like a business, the issue is that we have no way of creating a distinction between a business and the library.

    Posted by kate | October 21, 2011, 12:07 pm

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