I went looking for the digital future of libraries at the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting this week. Conveniently, the conference was held in Seattle, near a couple of very forward-looking library systems that make eBooks, mobile apps and digital downloads expected, almost routine.
But if the exhibit hall represented the near future for libraries, that future is still all about paper. Lots and lots of paper.
The hall consisted of more than 400 booths — visited by nearly 10,000 people including public, school, academic and corporate library staff over the span of the event. I went hunting for the tech. Not the standard stuff of behind-the-scenes library automation, on-screen research databases or free computer and Internet access (the last a tech service prized highly by patrons). But for the digital content and tools that have the potential to transform a library experience.
First stop: the major book publishers. Random House, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, W.W. Norton, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins, Penguin and Disney had large and colorful booths. But nothing digital to be found among the stacks of fiction and non-fiction. eBooks? Not even a mention.
Wait: there was an Amazon booth. Excited, I rushed over. It turned out to be for Amazon Children’s Publishing. It also only had physical books. When I asked the rep where the Kindles were, I got a shrug and the comment, “A big part of our market is libraries and printed books.” Not a Kindle to be found.
After more searching, I came up with a handful of exceptions among the major book publishers. Britannica Digital Learning was totally pixels, introducing Merriam-Webster Unabridged. Scholastic had its newish digital lines FreedomFlix and TrueFlix tucked away in a corner of its huge book-laden display (this minimal presence, I was told, was because they were based on popular physical lines, Cornerstones of Freedom and True Books). McGraw-Hill Professional was showing engineering and science interactive books.
So where were the eBooks that publishers are offering through Amazon, Nook and libraries?
I finally discovered a smaller exhibit hall separated by a walkway in the far back to where several tech firms were sentenced (apparently the trade show equivalent of Harry Potter’s bedroom under the staircase). There, the dominant player in library eBooks had an answer: it was all about them.
An executive for OverDrive, which has been the eBook intermediary for libraries for a decade, flatly stated that the book publishers simply refer any librarians interested in eBooks to his firm. Why no promotion of that relationship in their booths? The exec said OverDrive used to give publishers signs to put up, but vaguely explained that it got to be too much trouble.
Still, there were faint signs of interesting tech that went beyond the traditional collection management, online database (think ProQuest and LexisNexis) and web-connected computer and WiFi hotspot staples.
Boopsie, which does the Seattle Public Library and King County Library System mobile apps, and Mosio, which enables libraries like KCLS to communicate with patrons via text message, were both on hand. As were a few slightly more quirky or cool tech firms that caught my eye even if tucked away near booths for the Frozen Light Collection of jewelry and the Quilts of Love:
- StackMap, a web-based mobile app that lets anyone in a library find where exactly a physical book is shelved;
- Unglue.it, an initiative that uses crowdfunding to buy digital rights to a book and then share it without restriction, showing the first three books it’s “unglued;”
- MediaSurfer, an automated iPad-lending station which, in beta, maker Tech Logic says has already been pre-sold to about 20 libraries; and
- Lending Library, essentially a vending machine for books that scans a library card, releases a book and prints a due-date receipt. (While creators Public Information Kiosk say it’s perfect for underserved areas, I couldn’t help but think of it as a reverse bookdrop that spits a tome back.)
Perhaps the most promising exception to the paper-phenalia was MAKE Magazine. While its exhibit hall presence was small, its influence on the conference program was huge with two packed sessions on what the ALA dubbed “Maker Monday.” Libraries shared stories of taking part in the first-ever Maker Camps last summer, turning teens loose on creating interesting, physical tech projects with tools and kits. Several libraries discussed their plans to turn unused or remodeled square footage into Maker Spaces in cities as different as Wichita, KS, Detroit, MI and Arlington Heights, IL.
Despite the blue sky optimism of those conference sessions, the reality of the exhibit hall was stark. Digital content or tools are not pervasive in public libraries, nor are they likely to be soon.
Face it, Seattle and King County’s library systems are tech-savvy pocket universes. SPL, for example, is one of only three libraries anywhere to have fully integrated OverDrive’s digital content into its searchable catalog with physical books and media. And this sobering perspective is backed up by a recent Pew Research Center study, which cites that “the share of recent library users who have borrowed an eBook from a library has increased” — but only to 5 percent from 3 percent.
Blame money and resources. Blame institutional inertia. But, I hope, don’t blame a lack of imagination. The future of tech in libraries has to be more than improved automation and free places to send email and surf porn.
So when will transformative tech in public libraries become visible, mainstream, eventually common? A comment I overhead an ALA staffer make might be most telling: “We haven’t seen people not want books.”
Frank Catalano is a consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose GeekWire columns take a practical nerd’s approach to tech. He tweets @FrankCatalano and consults as Intrinsic Strategy. His first real paying job was as a page, shelving books at the Santa Barbara Public Library, in part because he was too young to be a chapter or a volume.
Previously on GeekWire: More than just books: Pew study details how technology has changed libraries