Conference Write up – E-Books: Reading The Future

After a rather stressful morning with line closures and signal problems obstructing my arrival, I was italian instpleasantly surprised to find the beautiful premises of The Italian Cultural Institute. Before the speakers got underway with their talks I gladly took the opportunity of enjoying some authentic Italian coffee whilst overlooking Belgrave Park through the exquisite floor-to-ceiling bay windows.

Caterina Cardona, the director of The Italian Cultural Institute opened the conference by extending a warm welcome to everyone. She was followed by Ian Stringer, the current chair of CILIP’s international Library and Information Group, who ran through the itinerary for the day and provided some general context for the theme of E-books. Sitting amongst librarians with an array of different European languages and cultures, I couldn’t help but smile at Ian’s heart-warmingly familiar Yorkshire accent which was broader than the River Thames.

First to present was Janene Cox who was a member of the advisory panel for William Sieghart’s independent review which was commissioned in 2013 as a result of the impact of E-books on the marketplace with an emphasis on libraries. The review had investigated the impact of e-lending on stake-holders such as librarians, publishers, wholesalers and writers and consequentially, four pilot projects were launched in order to test out the suggested model for e-lending in public libraries. Janene began by setting the context of The UK; since 2006 issues and visits are down by 17%and public sector funding has been reduced by 25%, a figure which is forecast to shrink by a further 25% by 2018. With a reduction in net expenditure and staff cuts of up to 26%, there has been resurgence in “community led” libraries with 22,187 recorded volunteers over the last year.

From the perspective of the library, E-books have been a tricky subject because allowing patrons to remotely download eliminates the need for “physical visits”, one of the predominant statistics that a library’s performance is judged on. Without the friction of patrons collecting physical books, it can appear, by judging only the figures, that the reach of a library has been significantly reduced. Resistance from publishers stems from the possible disruption to their industry: once in a digital format, a book has an almost unlimited lifetime. The worry for them is that if the process of obtaining an e-book through a library is so convenient there will be less demand to buy books.

Sieghart’s report proposed that an e-book, like a hard copy, should be loanable to only one user at a time and once its loaning capacity has been reached, should need to be re-bought in the same way a physical book would wear beyond serving its purpose. The model is being tested in two urban areas; Peterborough and Derbyshire, and two rural areas; Windsor and Maidenhead. Each pilot has been working with different variables such as length and conditions of loan and MTM, the research and strategy company who are managing the project will be collating the results after the full 12 months to gain insight on the scope of the tested models and how they can be applied to libraries nationwide. The project is currently mid-way through: Janene commented that it is still early days and the results at this point are far from conclusive but the added service of loanable e-books has not reduced the number of physical visits for the libraries.

robotOne of the features of the scheme is a “click to buy” button which allows users to download their own copy; however Janene said this has had little impact on sales figures. Personally I doubt that library users who are expecting to loan e-books free of charge would be inclined to buy a copy, later in the conference Javier Caleya referred to this aspect of the UK pilot projects and suggested that in his experience the option of “click to buy this as a gift” had been much more successful.

Sieghart has recently chaired a further investigation to determine the future of public libraries and suggest how things should change. He himself has alleged that the current situation is “Dysfunctional”; he gives examples and evidence, for example only 37% of British libraries can offer Wi-fi. His main objective is for substantial governance of libraries, he advocates the idea of a professional body to be appointed to over-see an overhaul of the system who will unify and modernise libraries. Some of the main recommendations were to move all libraries to one unified content management system, nationalise library cards and enable loans across the UK, provide digital training to librarians and commit to Wi-fi. Janene didn’t really touch on this during her talk and when I asked her during the Q and A what she thought of how likely his suggestions are to be put into practice she declined to speculate.

The next presentation was given by Gino Roncaglia from Tuscia University, Italy. His talk took a much more theoretical approach to E-books and the potential of new technology to create a more connected, complex and immersive generation of library services. Gino began by immediately dispelling our self-delusions that we live in a complex, connected information society; he said the information we consume within our society is very much fragmented.

Though we still read, we are reading new types of texts in new ways; Gino propagated that books or stories are complex textual objects which are naturally all-engaging, as readers we inhabit their very infrastructure. He highlighted how an E-book is an evolution of the traditional text format which is better adapted to facilitating the immersive reader experience. He used a children’s “Alice in Wonderland” E-book as an example and presented its features which allow children to befriend the characters they meet on social networking sites where further character profiles and information can be accessed as an extension to the story.only connect

He made the point that society is saturated with information and it should be the job of librarians to be able to disseminate and organise it, promoting information literacy. He illustrated that Twitter is a perfect example of fragmentation; posts are limited to 140 characters and there is a wealth of information to be disseminated, none of which makes any sense without a connecting foundation. Our job as librarians, he insisted, is to provide that connecting foundation. Though Twitter is a platform used to express the views and opinions of an individual, at an institutional level and particularly with libraries in mind, Gino proliferated that it can be used as a tool to aggregate useful information as a resource for library users. This has been demonstrated by a library in Canada which has accumulated contact information for vital services and authority figures like family law specialists, career information and local resources. He concluded that the traditional role of the librarian as preserver and gate-keeper to information is evolving to encompass new responsibilities. Libraries are a network of content and services that should be empowering readers, advocating information literacy, providing a platform for social reading and even producing content themselves. Gino won my heart during his presentation by using E. M Forster’s “only connect” metaphor from Howard’s End. There will be always be information but the power lays in the ability to “only connect” and make sense of it all.

Klaus Peter Bottger, the president of EBLIDA (European Bureau of Library Information and Documentation Association) spoke about the right to E-read campaign which is an ongoing movement spanning 28 countries to advocate the legalisation of lending all commercially available e-books to library users. The aim of the campaign was to spread awareness of the difficulties facing libraries in providing access to digital content. In 2013 research ratified that only around 50% of all titles were actually licensed to be lent in e-book format, those that are available are sold at ridiculously high prices from the publishers and in many states across Europe the authors are not rightfully compensated. The Campaign has been gathering momentum since its origins and continues the fight for a fair copy-right frame.

After a beautifully presented and mouth-wateringly delectable Italian lunch, it was the turn of Javier Celaya to speak. Offering a slightly different perspective than that of the average librarian, Javier’s presentation had a very technical element. Interestingly, he is the founding partner of dosdoce, a Spanish company which analyses key trends in the cultural sector, offering management consultancy services, research services and training in digital skills to professionals across different sectors including publishing, museums, and libraries and retailers.

The presentation explored upcoming digital experiences in libraries, all delegates were given a laminated “digital roadmap for libraries” that had collated some of the research dosdoce had conducted. The roadmap reads as an inventory for the emerging technologies which Javier perceives to be an enhancement of library services. He emphasised the importance of libraries moving “beyond the physical building”, envisioning a library service where the virtual and the physical experience are inextricably interconnected.

He explored the use of beacons; relatively low cost “micro-location” technology that relies on Bluetooth signals to send messages to app enabled smart phones. The messages can contain information to personalise and enrich user experience. For instance when a patron enters the library and walks past a beacon, a message could be sent to their phone alerting them to new books or new services. They could also be installed outside of the building, strategically placed in nearby bus stops or tube stations giving people directions to the library and promoting its services. Beacons are very much set to be part of the future with brands like House of Fraser and Asda testing them out in flagship stores. They are thought to be a similar but modified version of near field communication which works in similar way but transmits data through radio waves rather than the more smart-phone-compatible method of Bluetooth. Whilst devices must be within at least 4cm of proximity in order for NFC to work, beacons can be as far apart as 50m. It is debatable which is the preferred technology, though in my opinion it depends on the intention of the user. NFC requires opted for participation so this may be useful if, for example, I wanted to share a music file from my phone with a friend. Beacons are more commercially useful and if used well, could help inform library users of things that would be of interest to them based on past transactions. Though I can’t deny the innovation of such advancements, I can’t help but feel that equipment like this will inevitably be exploited for commercial purposes eroding the sanctity of a life where we aren’t consistently inundated with the unyielding, greed-fuelled propaganda of profitable interests.

Javier mentioned the usual suspects, facebook, twitter, pinterest and goodreads, briefly explaining how web applications and social networking sites can help create a faculty-patron relationship. He also mentioned the concept of augmented reality; devices that allow a digitally enhanced view of the real world which can be as simple as making use of QR codes which are already a popular tool amongst mercantile enterprises. There were some very futuristic, sci-fi inspired digital technologies too including facial recognition systems, robots and movement sensor carpets, all of which are designed to monitor user behaviour patterns like how long users spend in certain areas and at what times. It was articulated that technologies like this could give insight that would facilitate a more user orientated service but there certainly comes a point, in my opinion, where technology is being created for the sake of technology being created and things are invented to do things that would be better done by humans!

Some of the ideas were just plain ridiculous such as drones (described as unmanned combat vehicles) to transport books to less able members (I think we’ll stick with our good old country orders thanks!) and even wearable gadgets like the virtual reality glasses currently being developed by the likes of Google. The conclusion from Javier was that the library is no longer an analogous activity hub but one which is shared with technology.

Finally Melanie Le Torrec presented her experience of “making e-reading easier” in France. She had been involved in the BULAC project which had seen the merging of ten academic libraries specialising in languages and civilization, the confluence of which has led to the area being labelled “Paris’s new Latin Quarter”. In addition to overseeing cultural events, her career has involved connecting the public with digital services. She spoke about the initiative in France to provide wider access to e-books through public libraries.bibook

Her talk focused on her experiences of introducing e-books to Grenoble where digital Innovation started as early as 2005; public libraries were adopting e-books, digital heritage content, video on demand and online independent learning as part of their services. It was the third French City to implement the nationwide programme PNB (Pret Numerique en Bibiotheque or Digital Loans Library to us). Funded by the Ministry of Culture and communication, the PNB scheme has overseen the development of an e-reading interface called Bibook and is the product of a successful collaboration of the digital publishers: Feedbooks, Grenoble based public libraries and PNB’s technical operator. The project was overseen by the professional Canadian company, De Marque who are responsible for introducing the e-book platform to the entirety of Quebec. Melanie imparted that 50 to 60 publishers feed the data base and she forecasted that by the end of 2014, there will be 1000 titles to choose from.

In order to utilise the e-book lending platform, patrons must be a member of the town library and must create an account which is linked to their library account. Readers can loan up to five e-books at once over 28 days. Melanie reported that though the scheme is still young, it is rapidly attracting new library users. So far, the interface has facilitated a straightforward model in which e-books are loanable to users whilst writers are fairly compensated and no copyright laws are in breach.

All in all, the conference was extremely successful in conveying the wealth of issues generated by e-books and their impact on librarians, publishers, writers, teachers and consumers. I felt that I came away with an in depth picture of the consequences e-books have had on public and school libraries. Though none of the presentations went into any great depth about e-books in academic libraries, the opportunity to network with other delegates led to the conclusion that although E-books are fast becoming a favoured format for many readers, a lot of institutions are still grappling with the question of if and how to incorporate them into their collections. In many instances they are still seen as a secondary resource that is in no way a substitute for print books which are still very much dominating the market. There are a lot of questions surrounding how to build a successful e-lending model. Whilst other industries like music and films seem to have absorbed electronic formats into their distribution models, e-books are still trying to carve their way into the world.

e booksI will conclude on what, for me, was one of the most prominent (and widely alluded to) concepts that arose from the conference; that the role of the library and the librarian is evolving; we are no longer holding the key to information, the world wide web, amongst other things has ensured that door is now wide open, its contents pouring out for all to consume, as librarians we must organise it and teach others how to effectively use it.

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