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I can’t even begin to explain how incredibly proud I felt of my native San Francisco after stumbling across a San Francisco Chronicle article from mid-August titled “Libraries to try buying e-books directly.”

If you’re not familiar with the struggles public libraries throughout the U.S. are dealing with in regards to e-books, this is a story you should probably read.

And if you are familiar with the situation but just don’t find yourself caring all that much, well … this is a story you should absolutely read; it might get you pumped up enough to change your attitude.

Here’s the takeaway:

“Popular demand isn’t determining which e-books [the] San Francisco [Public Library] or libraries across the nation can offer their patrons. With most of the biggest publishers refusing to sell e-books to vendors that act as middlemen between publishers and libraries, San Francisco and other California libraries are preparing to try something new in their efforts to expand their digital collections—buying e-books directly from smaller publishers.

“Starting this fall, the 220-member library cooperative Califa Library Group will begin rolling out a $325,000 project with the goal of buying from the smaller publishing companies thousands of e-books that the libraries will own forever. San Francisco and most other libraries lease their collection through OverDrive, a digital distribution company.”

According to Califa’s director of development and innovation, Heather Teysko, who’s quoted in the story, roughly 50 publishers have already shown interest in being a part of the library system’s new program. The majority of those publishing companies are independent—no surprise there. Teysko also points out that prior to being launched in the San Francisco Public Library system, “the project will be piloted in the Contra Costa County Library system.” The current plan involves implementing the program in San Francisco by February or March of 2013.

A few other significant points from the story: 

“San Francisco is also introducing a new vendor in October to compete with OverDrive. Baker & Taylor, the leading supplier of print books to libraries, will add 6,000 e-books to the library’s collection, specializing in color content and e-books for the visually impaired.”

“Nearly half of e-book readers surveyed by the Pew Research Center this year did not know whether their library offered e-books, and neither did 58 percent of all library cardholders.”

“For City Librarian Luis Herrera, the most important factor in the struggle between libraries and publishers is providing access to information to those who can’t afford to buy e-books on their own. He cited the Pew survey that found that even among library e-book borrowers, 41 percent still paid for their most recent e-book. He believes that’s evidence that publishers can help libraries fulfill their civic duties of informing the masses and still turn a profit. ’What were saying at the end of the day is it’s about access to this content, not about undermining the business models,’ he said.”

For any of our readers who might not be completely up to speed on the libraries-and-e-books situation, I think it’s worth pointing out that while these Bay Area libraries are undoubtedly doing something very important and admirable, projects such as this one are most likely just one small step in the very long climb towards solving the larger problem. The reason I say that has to do with the fact that, as the Chronicle story points out, the 50-odd publishers who’ve thus far shown interest in joining the program are mostly independent.

To be perfectly clear, I’m nothing if not an obsessively serious fan of independent publishing in general. And yet I’m also someone who’s deeply involved with the e-reading scene on a daily basis, and therein lies the rub: A large percentage of serious e-readers, I would suspect, tend to be fans of independent publishing—at least in theory. They also tend to be the sorts of people who are tech-savvy enough to find a free e-copy elsewhere of a Big Six book that might not be available at their public library.

A comment posted underneath the Chronicle story probably explains my thinking best:

“Go ahead publishers, screw the libraries and their patrons by limiting the number of times an ebook can be lent, or even, as some of you have done, refuse to allow your titles to be sold at all to libraries. You go right ahead with that. Just remember, as you are jerking readers around, that those of us who can’t find a legal way to borrow your materiel can easily find illegal access that just leaves you and your profit margin completely out of the equation.”

On the other side of the proverbial coin, there are many, many owners of e-reading devices who are so tech-illiterate that even something as simple as purchasing an e-book from the Kindle store presents them with a major challenge. And I would guess that many of those types of people don’t care quite as much about independently-published books; they simply want to read the latest New York Times bestseller on their Kindle or iPad.

And so I can’t help but wonder: Will those more casual readers be disappointed when they scan through the hundreds of new e-books coming to the San Francisco and Contra Costa library systems, and end up not finding any titles they’re familiar with? Will they maybe even grow disillusioned with the libraries’ laudable efforts to make their reading lives easier?

Again, I’m not suggesting that public libraries shouldn’t concentrate on building up their collections of independently-published books. On the contrary, in fact. What I am saying, however, is that while these Bay Area libraries are clearly in the process of winning a major battle, the war itself is still far from being over: Until the Big Six begin playing fairly with public libraries, in other words, there will probably always be deeply unsatisfied library users.

I’m certainly not suggesting that I have any of the answers, although the patron education classes being run at the main branch of San Francisco’s system seem to me, at least, as a very wise move in the right direction. (Read the Chronicle article for more details about those classes, in which tech-beginners are taught how to download library e-books onto their devices.)

I think it’s very easy for those of us who are deeply ingrained in the e-reading scene to forget just how foreign the e-reading process is for so many people—people like our parents, for instance, and our grandparents.

{ To learn more about the Califa Library Group, click here to visit their company blog }

 
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