Amazon and the library redux

Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of commentary in the library world about Amazon’s Kindle Lending Library.

Most of the the library and ebook pundits go over the nitty-gritty details of the Kindle Lending Library, compare the extremely restrictive terms of Amazon’s initial foray into lending services with the vast array of library offerings, and pronounce that libraries have nothing to worry about.

ReadWriteWeb warns its readers “not to get too excited” about the prospect of rushing out to join Amazon Prime and tearing up their library cards.

My personal favorite is the post at Agnostic, Maybe that The Amazon Lending Library is NOT the Library Apocalypse. For one thing, the library apocalypse is more likely going to come as a result of shrinking budgets than anything else.

But to stretch the apocalypse metaphor further, is Amazon helping to feed the Four Horsemen’s horses? That strikes this particular pundit as a much more likely scenario.

The particulars of the Amazon deal as currently stated are very restrictive.  However, many patrons think that library policies are very restrictive. I’m not saying that they are, I am saying that everything is a matter of perspective. How many patrons have we lost for life over arguments about 15 cent or 25 cent overdue fines?

Amazon will change the structure of the deal as soon as it decides it is beneficial for them to do so. I would be willing to bet that the one book per month limit is the first thing to go. One book at a time, like Netflix, will make more sense to most users. But Amazon had to start somewhere, and they can afford to think about the very long term. Their point is to sell Kindles and to get more Prime Members. (And now, to win the probable court case.)

What members of the general public have to say is quite informative. Amazon has a lot of mindshare and the lending program has generated a lot of interest. Lending books for no additional charge used to be one service that libraries offered that was not available on the net. It was a counter to the argument that “why do we need libraries, everything is on the net now?”

The Amazon Lending Library publicity means that people know there are other alternatives on the net for borrowing books. Just because that alternative is not available to everyone now, doesn’t mean that it can’t be expanded later. And people who are making the argument to cut library funding will NOT dive into that detail. The sound bite will be enough.

Libraries do lend ebooks, and thanks to services like OverDrive and Project Gutenberg, a library’s collection can be larger and more diverse than Amazon’s, especially since OverDrive was more careful about actually securing rights instead of just assuming it could do whatever it felt like.

But commenters on the Amazon kerfuffle make the point over and over that if a user wants anything popular from the library, they have to get on a long wait list. No one likes that. What Amazon is offering, limited as it appears to a librarian, is available to any qualified user who wants it, right now. The whole point of ebooks is that a reader can have what they want, when and where they want it.

Over on Librarian by Day, a lot of statistics are used to make the case Why Amazon’s Lending Library is Not a Threat to Public Libraries. The problem is that these kind of statistics don’t move people. Sound bites and stories move people. Every statistic is absolutely correct, and it all sounds like “preaching to the choir”. Anyone who is already convinced that libraries are necessary will be swayed by these facts. Anyone who wants to believe that we can all be replaced by an electronic device, or who just loves bright, shiny toys, or who is simply willing to be convinced because they want to lower their taxes, is going to follow the marketing, and Amazon does great marketing.

We can expect that Amazon will learn from the rollout of its lending program, make changes, and improve it, making it more attractive to its users.  But as was asked over at the E-Content blog at American Libraries, “Can we learn from it?

Amazon presents a challenge to libraries, not because this particular service is better than what libraries currently offer, but just because they generate a huge amount of press and they used the word “library” in their announcement. But what will we as librarians make of this challenge?

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