Thoughts on an E-book standards meeting.

Rick Weingarten, Director of OITP just attended a meeting in New York about e-books. Here is a dispatch from New York:

Here I am in New York, fresh from an e-book standards meeting at the AAP headquarters, thinking that the library community really needs to start up a conversation with the publishers and technology industries about digital publishing.

E-books have been a side interest (some have called it a hobbyhorse) for me for several years, now. I call it a side interest, because nothing in the previous growth of the industry nor the impact of e-books on libraries to this date has served to moved e-books particularly high on our priority list as yet. OITP did have an e-book subcommittee for a while. Its work was focused mainly on DRM issues. And, with the advent of library friendly loaning models from the industry, some public libraries have been experimenting with offering e-books and have faced a series of issues with cataloguing, formats, and managing the technology. LITA has done a good job helping libraries deal with these technical issues. But, none of this has yet suggested that e-books represent a serious new challenge for libraries, nor raised it on our priority list.

However, things are changing. As formats are stabilizing through improved standards; the technology of e-readers is improving; and a new generation of digitally oriented consumers is on the scene. Sales figures are starting to climb rapidly, albeit from a low base, and publishers—particularly trade publishers seem to me to be on the verge of greatly increasing their lists of books published in digital formats. But, change is not just happening in the commercial publishing world. Thanks in part to the efforts of libraries, museums, and archives, we are beginning to see the global development of large-scale digital collections of historical cultural works, many of them in the public domain.

Assuming this transformation is not just in my imagination, but real, what does this mean for libraries? In the first place, it means that, potentially at least, any public library will be able to provide some of its patrons with immediate access to a hugely expanded selection of works, and at lower cost to the library. A major shift in trade publishing would also mean that many library users will come to expect to get their books and magazines in digital formats. Finally, library created digital content, to be useful to patrons, will have to be provided in the same formats and on the same technology platforms as the commercial products. From an access perspective, it will make no sense to maintain a digital collection of public domain works in formats that can’t be fully used on new generations of e-readers.

It would be hard to imagine that, facing this potential digital transformation, libraries wouldn’t have a lot of issues to discuss with both publishers and the technologists. It’s not hard to imagine some of them—standards, the technical architecture of the distribution system, potential business models (at a general level, steering well clear of antitrust restrictions), metadata and cataloguing, and so on. And, there are doubtless others that I haven’t imagined.

By the way, just for the record, one of these issues is NOT the replacement of books as we know and love them. No publisher I know of foresees this. Instead, they are talking about multiple formats that will serve and even expand a population of readers who have a variety of tastes and needs.

I think the conversation should begin. But, the question is, if OITP offered to host it, would anyone join? Or is this still just Rick’s hobbyhorse?

About Jacob Roberts

Jacob Roberts is the communications specialist for the ALA Washington Office.

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