Sunday, September 13, 2009

e-books, e-book readers, but what about end-users?

Last week, I participated in a TALIS podcast on ebooks and ebook readers. You can find it here. It was an interesting conversation that featured many different perspectives, ranging from a librarian who is actively running an e-book program at a library, a person from Google (who discussed aspects of the Google book settlement) and other professionals representing other different technological backgrounds and experiences.

There is however, one concern I have when we gather industry people to discuss these topics. That is the fact that there is a important point-of-view missing or only slightly represented and that is the view of the end-users. While presumably, many of us on the podcast talk to end-users, directly or indirectly, and try to interpret what we believe they want, it's still an interpretation and a pale representation. For instance, I spend most of my time working with academic libraries and on academic campuses visiting academic libraries. It is not infrequent for me to hear (or read) reports that state many students use the library only as a meeting place, or a place to catch a nap and how little, if at all, they actually use the physical collection of the library (for a variety of reasons). They use digital resources, whether supplied through their library or not, but digital it must be. So, I try to represent that point of view in these forums as best I can. Yet, I think within the podcast parameters, I'm only able to represent a fragment of what I've heard from end-users.

For example, I've met more than a few students that have told me they expected to graduate without every having actually borrowed a single item from the library. Yet, I've seen these same students fully wired in that there are computers in their backpacks, iPods in their ears and mobile phones in their pockets -- all of which they read quite actively. So, reading is not the issue. We know that print will live on for a very long time in one form or another. Our printed library materials? Maybe, maybe not. I'm not at all sure students care.

Now perhaps digitizing these works will allow them to flow more actively into the environments where end-users appear to be spending more of their time and energy. That would be good. But that won't be enough. We, as librarians must also find ways to extend our value-add out there along with our library resources. That is something I think we need to seriously devote some active thought to in the very near term. More importantly, we need to hold some discussions with end-users so we make library services meaningful to them.

It's a frequent concern of mine when working with libraries, that libraries don't spend enough time talking to their end users about what it is their information needs are and how libraries might fill those needs. The most comprehensive description I've seen in the last decade was
The OCLC Environmental Scan: Pattern Recognition. Unfortunately, it is now six years old -- a lifetime when talking about the changes wrought by technology. I'm sure if this survey was updated today, we'd be very enlightened by what we would hear. Our profession needs to have these conversations more fequently, not less. Once taken, we need to listen and respond to the results. Reading the 2003 OCLC report, one is struck by how little progress we've actually made on the findings it reported. Six years later, our lives are complicated by a financial crisis. Library funding seems to be in critical condition. One has to wonder if the lack of funding could be tied to the lack of progress in meeting end-user needs? Had we done a better job there, would the financial situation be different today?

E-books, e-readers? They're here today and we're trying to grapple with the issues about what to do with them and how to use them in our libraries. Before we get too far down the path, I suggest we have some in-depth conversations with end-users.