By Paul Duckworth, MLS
As librarians, we know that technology has changed the way we provide service to our patrons—it’s a no brainer. Some of us, myself included, have been around long enough to remember being a part of the beginning waves of change: the introduction of the MARC record, the advent of turnkey automation systems, followed quickly by the rise of personal computers, and the transformation of card catalogs into scrap paper. For years, prior to using the Notes feature on my smartphone, the backs of my library’s catalog cards served as shopping lists.
None of us really knows how technology will transform the way we interact with our customers in the next five to ten years. But there’s one particular area that I’m especially excited about: the advent of instant publishing. Gone are the days when the publisher imprints of Vantage Press and a few others were stigmatized as “vanity presses” and scorned by librarians. Today, any title can be easily published with only a modest financial investment and made available worldwide through standard online retailers, as well as a wide variety of other websites, including ebooks.com, smashwords.com, fictionwise.com, and buy-e-books-online.com.
Why am I excited about this? Furthermore, why should librarians care?
First, instant publishing completely bypasses the gatekeeping function of traditional publishing, designed to maintain profitability. It is now possible for anyone who has a good story to tell—or an underrepresented nonfiction topic to explore—to publish their work, be it via print or e-book. Thanks to new publishing alternatives, hot titles like Amanda Hocking’s Trylle trilogy went from initial self-published e-books to having its rights acquired by St. Martins. After being rejected by major publishers, E.L. James self-published her first book, Fifty Shades of Grey, both as a paperback and an e-book. Ever heard of it? I didn’t think so…
Second, books can make it into finished form and into the hands of readers much faster than ever before. That’s undeniably a good thing.
Third, local authors in our communities have many more options now for getting self-published and getting their books onto our shelves. I could go on and on, but the benefits of self-publishing are clear for authors, readers, and libraries. An added plus for collection development librarians is that it has become easier for publishers to bring titles back that had moved to O.S.I. or O.P. status when their inventory was exhausted.
Self-published titles do present challenges for libraries. Lack of reviews and cataloging records, competition for limited materials budgets, and acquisition challenges are not insignificant. I have often wondered how my library could offer an e-book to users if it isn’t included in titles offered by ProQuest, Overdrive, hoopla, or other content aggregators. But in my experience, libraries (and opportunistic new businesses) always find ways to shape new technologies into expanded services for patrons.
Today, Espresso Book Machines are installed in public libraries and other locations. This ingenious device makes it possible to purchase a book from among thousands of available titles and have it printed and delivered (i.e., dispensed from the machine) in a few minutes. Biblioboard makes it possible for individual e-books to be easily added to its database of titles that are available to libraries (MARC records included). Also, its partner, SELF-e, offers a means for people to produce their e-books and distribute them through their public library.
These are exciting times when we librarians can say “yes” to more people and encourage access to more titles.
At one time, the LP record was THE format for music and spoken word. Its replacement, the cassette tape, is long gone and now CDs are beginning to be phased out. The emergence of Beta and VHS videotapes led to forecasts that movie theaters would disappear. Instead, theaters continue attracting audiences, Beta and VHS are gone, formats unimagined at the time have replaced them, and video materials have the highest turnover in public libraries.
Similarly, the development of e-books sparked fears that the traditional book format would fade away. So far, the physical books are holding their own quite nicely and libraries now offer access to far more titles in formats far improved from the original Rocket eBook. No doubt self-publishing will trigger predictions that traditional publishers will crumble. More likely, as with so many other developments, it will simply add yet another format or option to the mix. I predict that we librarians are going to enjoy choices and service opportunities that even the brightest of us can’t predict. How’s that for a prediction!
What do I see when I gaze into the crystal ball? Change. It’s just a hunch, but I think libraries will remain part of that mix so long as we don’t latch onto particular formats as sacrosanct or reflexively try to resist the pace of change, only to make ourselves redundant in the process. Instead, we must continue to embrace new opportunities and technological adaptations in the name of service for our communities.
Nothing brings a smile to Paul Duckworth’s face quite like a good book, a long walk, and the unmatched beauty of country life. Click here for more.