17 May 2012

Public Library funding and E-Books

This survey-informed infographic (courtesy of onlineuniversities.com) makes for interesting reading. It provides a profile of American adults’ use of e-books. For example, 56% of the e-book reading public read for work or school, whilst the majority (80%) read for pleasure. When it comes to sharing a book with others, 69% prefer printed books to e-books. When “reading books for travelling or commuting”, 73% of readers favour the e-book format.  What’s most notable about the survey is that American e-book readers “are more likely to be younger than 50, have some college education and live in a household that earns more than $50,000”. It seems that the better-off and educated section of society enjoys the benefits of e-book services.

What’s that got to do with public libraries? Public library services expressly follow the principles of the UNESCO Public Library Manifesto, which states the following:
The public library, the local gateway to knowledge, provides a basic condition for lifelong learning, independent decision-making and cultural development of the individual and social groups. In order to fulfil this basic condition, the public library shall be free of charge
In other words, the public library operates on the simple premise of providing equal and unconditional public access to all information resources on offer.

If you look at the current budget situation of public libraries in Ireland, the picture is bleak to say the least. Across the thirty-two library authorities, local expenditure on library stock is set to decrease by a depressing 12.1% in 2012 compared to the previous year. Translation: a lot of materials that should be acquired in order to maintain an informed citizenry will not be acquired. In contrast to this development, the report states that the demand for public library services is steadily on the increase – catch-22.

The two charts below speak for themselves. The first one shows how small a fraction of overall public library funding is actually spent on stock acquisition (6% for 2012).

Source: Public Library Authorities BUDGETED EXPENDITURE for 2012

The picture is somewhat personalised by the second chart below tracking the negative trend of per-capita expenditure on stock acquisition over the past four years.

Source: Public Library Authorities BUDGETED EXPENDITURE for 2012
The picture in Donegal is particularly distressing. Expenditure per capita on stock has dropped from E3.10 in 2008 to E0.29 this year (see table 3.1 on p.15 in the report for a comparison to other county council expenditures). Certain branches there are literally facing funding collapse even though demand for services is ever increasing.

So what about the expenditure on e-books in public libraries? The report does not break down how much is spent on e-books (7,6 Million in 2012 for books, serials, multimedia and e-books). Sure, e-books are a great thing altogether, but I wonder whether it wouldn't be a good idea to re-assess the role of e-books within the context of heavy budgetary pressures (if ebook spending in Irish public libraries continues to grow in the future as has been seen in other countries). Access is conditional as users require Internet access. In 2007, 57% of all private households in Ireland had an Internet connection. This has increased to 78% by 2011. However, the Internet is primarily used by young adults (16-29). Only 21% of the age category 60-74 used the Internet in the last three months (see Information Society and Telecommunications in Households 2009- 2011). The question is, what does the demand for e-books actually look like across all demographics of public library users in Ireland? To what extent is e-book expenditure justified under the current set of financial circumstances?

Joacim Hansson offers an interesting perspective on e-books in public libraries (SWEDEN Viewpoint: Considering e-books), albeit from a Swedish perspective. He argues that e-book publishers artificially position themselves as indispensable operators in the digital realm through aggressive commercial campaigns (I agree wholesomely as I experienced this first-hand at an EBSCO roadshow recently). The creation of technological stress encourages public libraries to spend funds on this new technology, which is born out of the simple belief that their patrons somehow need it. In reality, such a need does not really exist at this point in time as the demand for e-books is still limited in Sweden.

Whatever about the rationale for introducing e-books in academic libraries (see various previous e-book related posts on this blog); it certainly seems, from a Swedish perspective at least and quite possibly from an Irish one too, that public libraries ought to consider carefully how to spend their allocated stock budgets. After all, “access to e-books isn’t a question of democracy. Reading is. Free loans in public libraries are. E-books aren’t” (Hansson, 2011)

In Ireland, funding for acquisitions ought to be protected and increased rather than cut. Regardless of  individuals' socioeconomic circumstances, it is essential that everyone has equal access to high-quality information resources via public libraries. This is especially important during times of economic turmoil when citizens require access to information more than ever.

Clearly, things will not improve any time soon on the funding side of things...


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