At a recent School Librarians’ workshop, a very prestigious and knowledgeable speaker addressed the growing popularity of library eBook collections. He spoke at length about eReaders, and the expense of accumulating enough hand-held devices to meet the demand of borrowers. He taught me about the dangers of eyestrain, and of E-ink’s supposed benefits over backlit LCD readers. He discussed the controversy surrounding one particular eBook publisher who has limited the number of circulations that each eBook can have in one library. He spoke very engagingly, but the discussion turned away, I felt, from the true problem of loaning eBooks through libraries.
Books are not the paper that they are printed on, but the content and ideas within the covers. Libraries circulate books in all forms; it is becoming easier and more feasible to collect large numbers of eBooks in public, university and school libraries, and we feel very proud when we can point out how many e-volumes the library loans. However, are we discriminating against the less fortunate when we use library funds to purchase eBooks without also buying readers on which they can be enjoyed? If we loan audiobooks and eBooks, are we obligated to also loan the means by which a borrower can read that book? Or should we assume that the library user has an eReader or a CD player or a computer at his/her disposal? This is not as much of an issue in schools, as there are usually enough computers available which can be used for both functions; however, books are borrowed from school libraries to be used outside of those four walls.
As libraries transform collections from dusty paper to digital format, as I am sure they eventually all will, there must be a way to make certain that the collections are, as Melvil Dewey envisioned, free and accessible to all.