“Netflix for books” already exists: it’s called the library

Even in a profession where we interact with the general public daily, it can be tricky for librarians to assess how much other people know about what we do, and what libraries offer – which is why it is so delightful to see an article by a non-librarian raising awareness of a service libraries offer. In “Why the Public Library Beats Amazon – For Now” in theĀ Wall Street Journal, Geoffrey A. Fowler praises public libraries across the country, more than 90% of which offer e-books (according to the Digital Inclusion Study funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services).

Noting the rise of Netflix-style subscription platforms like Oyster and Scribd, Fowler observes that libraries still have a few key advantages: they’re free, and they offer more books that people want to read.

random-house-penguin11

Graphic designer Aaron Tung’s idea for the Penguin – Random House logo

Librarians have been working with publishers for several years, negotiating various deals and trying out different models (sometimes it seems like two steps forward, one step back), but finally all of the Big Five have come on board and agreed to “sell” (license) e-books and digital audiobooks to libraries under some model. (The Big Five were formerly the Big Six, but Random House and Penguin merged and became Penguin Random House, missing a tremendous opportunity to call themselves Random Penguin House, with accompanying awesome logo.)

Thus, while Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU for short – has the University of Kansas made a fuss about this yet? They should) touts its 600,000 titles, the question readers should be asking is, which 600,000 titles? All books are not created equal. The library is more likely to have the books you want to read, as Fowler points out in his article. It may be true that Amazon, Oyster, and Scribd have prettier user interfaces, and it may take fewer clicks to download the book you want (if it’s there), but library platforms – including OverDrive, 3M Cloud Library, and others – have made huge strides in this area. If you haven’t downloaded an e-book from your library recently, or at all, give it a try now – it’s leaps and bounds smoother than it used to be. You may have to wait for it – most publishers still insist on the “one copy/one user” model, rather than a simultaneous use model – but it is free. (Or if you’re impatient and solvent, you can go ahead and buy it.)

Readers' advisory desk at the Portland (ME) Public Library.

Readers’ advisory desk at the Portland (ME) Public Library.

Another way in which the library differs from for-profit book-rental platforms is that, to put it bluntly, the library isn’t spying on you. If you’re reading a Kindle book, Amazon knows how fast you read, where you stop, what you highlight. Libraries, on the other hand, have always valued privacy. The next time you’re looking for an e-book, try your local library – all you need is your library card number and PIN.

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