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Sticking a toe in the e-book tsunami

Trying to write about the e-book market for libraries is like dipping a cup into a tsunami.  Before a potential post can be written and edited, something new has come down the pike that has enormous repercussions for front-line librarians.

Arguably, there is a tendency among many e-book stakeholders to want to stay with what we know, how things have always gone, and a desire to shape the digital content realm in the shadow of the print world.  (Un)fortunately, this is in direct opposition to the demands of the rapidly shifting reading ecosystem.

Brian O’Leary, founder and principal, Magellan Media, presented recently at the Books in Browsers  2011 conference where he challenges the stakeholders — including publishers, vendors, authors, libraries, and others — to take advantage of the “Opportunity in Abundance” and act together to affect the critical change needed for the reading ecosystem to succeed against the disruptions in force.

Such sage and timely advice.

As painted in O’Leary’s presentation, those of us who deal with books (and at issue here, e-books) cannot continue to act as if our individual actions do not impact others in the supply chain (read: ecosystem) that brings a book from the author to the reader.  Without full understanding and appreciation of issues faced in the publishing world, librarians cannot make accurate predictions for the kinds of services they will be able to provide their patrons.  And, their demands would be more realistic if they inform themselves of the issues publishers must weigh in determining their business practices.  It is unsustainable, however, for publishers to make these decisions without acknowledging the symbiotic relationship we all have now that the supply chain has become so much more complex and therefore the impact we each have on other members of the ecosystem, as O’Leary so artfully notes.

Recent events with e-books bring much needed attention to the need to be proactive and include all players in a discussion as to how to ameliorate the contentious marketplace in which we find ourselves.

Such recent events provide the “hook we need to collaborate” suggested by O’Leary.  We will not fully understand or appreciate the “value-add” of all the players unless we work together to affect productive change and revamp our respective business models.

It is true that digital technology is disrupting a wide swath of our society — not the least of which is the library community and publishing industry.  We are likely to be in a time of uncertainty for the foreseeable future as we let go of old business models and experiment with new identities.  Rather than assume the rationale for one another’s business choices, now is indeed an opportunity that we would be foolhardy to ignore.

Libraries are anxious to return to the predictability once available in the lending of books to their patrons.

In the quickly changing environment predictability may be the short-term casualty, but rather than stay mired in the hopes of a return, let’s take advantage of the “opportunity in abundance” and develop a model where open interaction and exploration is the norm.

Marijke Visser
Assistant Director

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Marijke Visser

Marijke Visser is the associate director and senior policy advocate at the American Library Association’s Washington Office. She is involved in all stages of Libraries Ready to Code, E-rate, and Connect Home projects. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Peace and Global Studies/Sociology and Anthropology from Earlham College in Indiana. Before joining the ALA in 2009, Marijke earned her master’s in Library and Information Science from Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis.


  1. Thank you, greatly, for the links and the embrace of the ideas I shared at the IA’s “Books in Browsers” meeting. I am still working through the “how” part of the case, but the “why” seems increasingly clear, particularly when you outline it as you have here.

  2. mvisser mvisser

    Some in the library community have been struggling with the “how” part as well. It is clear that both the library community and the publishing community are grappling with similar issues. Rather than be fearful of the unknown we are working out how to encourage our folk to embrace it- view it as an opportunity. I believe there is a sincere desire to “join forces” to find an equitable solution (or perhaps a variety of equitable solutions) so that we can continue to serve our constituents.

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