“Everyone has every book ever published… in their pocket!” : A response

I occasionally hear from a colleague about how exciting it is now that ‘every book ever published’ is available to download to their phone or device.   Usually my response at the time is along the lines of “well, that would be lovely but we’re not quite at that stage yet”.  However, I always feel that this is woefully inadequate, and I spend a lot of time afterwards trying to really respond properly.  I’ve come up the following thoughts.  

In the past year or two I’ve done extensive research on this topic, both for my own school policies and collections and for my soon-to-be-published   Ebooks in School Libraries, (co-authored with Cathy Leverkus, published by AASL in the fall of 2013) and we have found out that, while it may seem to some that all books are digitally available right now, there are many bumps along the road that stand in the way of that reality.

 Imagine an eBook Flow Chart.

 “Every book that’s ever been published” includes: 

·         Current titles (copyright protected) AND oldest titles (public domain) AND everything in between (copyright protected and not always available digitally).

·         Popular titles AND obscure titlesIf it’s too popular publishers get protective about selling to libraries. If it’s not popular and still protected by copyright there isn’t much push to digitize it—and often it’s not legal to digitize

·         Free AND for sale: Many books that are published digitally are only available for sale. “Every one of us” can only have all the books that are digitized if we pay for those that are for sale. Often new titles are not available to libraries for purchase, or are sold to libraries at 3-4 times the amount charged to individuals, so these are not always even available to borrow from libraries, resulting in a world where many books are only available to those who can afford to purchase them individually.

·         digitized AND not yet digitized : new books for sale have publishers making them available digitally—for sale. Old books in public domain have Google/HathiTrust eager to digitize them. Books that are not brand new but are still copyright-protected are often in the ‘donut hole’ of digital access: not available. While Google would love to digitize them, and provide them for free, the copyright holders are not so eager for that to happen, and have been bringing lawsuits. One lawsuit recently found in favor of Google, but in such a way that Google is still prevented from making the entire book available for free as a protection for copyright holders.

In researching this issue I have made use of many different resources. For one, the State Library of Kansas has created a Facebook identity to publicize restrictions on ebooks in libraries; here’s one recent post:

Another tool is the monthly report of price comparisons and availability of ebooks created by Douglas County Libraries in Colorado. This includes details for ebooks available to libraries compared to individual pricing—up to $87.00 a copy for library purchase. This month’s report looks at New York Times best sellers in Fiction, Non-Fiction, Children’s and Young Adult literature. Note the number of books not available to libraries in digital form at all.

douglas county nov 13


Other sources of information, should this put a bee in your bonnet to find out more, include the following blogs:




 Here are some basic issues with ebook availability, as it applies to “Every one of us, right now”:

·         Are all ebooks ‘free’ or is this only for people who can afford to buy them?

·         Are all titles available in digital format? Are less popular titles also available, for those who choose the path less taken?

·         If those interested in digitizing books become more interested in selling ebooks than in the public service of digitizing ‘everything’, will less popular, perhaps controversial titles end up not being digitized and therefore not available?

Curious, I searched for books on Irish History in Google Books. I got a lot of results, and no doubt there were some available for free, but one that jumped out at me came with this result (below). I could find The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland in Google Books, but it is not available in digital form, and it is not available (even in print) for free—except from a library. One very cool feature of Google Books is the “Find in a Library”, using WorldCat; I was able to find 4 print copies in libraries within 10 miles of here. 

 oxford illustrated

One last thought comes from a recent Pew survey. From the June 2013 School Library Journal, the article by Karen M. Peterson is titled: Pew Study: Teens Still Love Print Media, ‘Traditional’ Library Services

“Tech-savvy American young adults are more likely than older adults to have read printed books in the past year, are more likely to appreciate reading in libraries, and are just as strong supporters of traditional library services as older adults, a new national report from the Pew Research Center shows. According to the survey of Americans ages 16–29, a majority of young adults believe it is “very important” for libraries to have librarians and books for borrowing, while relatively few think that libraries should automate most library services or move most services online.”

While it is indeed exciting to think of the expansion of availability that digitization brings to many books, it is important to look more deeply to see the hidden impact digitization brings. It is also important to see that ‘most’ teens still love print media. According our school’s June 2013 library survey, more than half of our students at the Upper School prefer to read in print for school projects, while only about 10% prefer to read digitally. When asked about recreational reading, these numbers are more extreme, with 73% preferring print and 2% preferring digital. Preferences should count for a lot, as we seek to serve our students ‘where they live’.

Yes, this is a flood of information in response to what is often an offhand remark made in passing.  Most commenters are probably referring in general to the exciting world of possibilities facing us.  However, I am concerned about those who may leap to the conclusion that ‘if it’s all in my pocket right now, what do we need libraries for?’ In fact, as these few details show, libraries are still vitally important,—dare I say it? – Now More Than Ever.   It’s a complex and ever changing issue that requires continuous monitoring; good thing it’s such an exciting topic.  Talk about a page-turner!