Libraries have an ebook problem. This is no secret. The problem has been addressed by many–repeatedly and constantly–in both thoughtful and thought-provoking discussions. Some of my favorites can be found here (Librarian by Day); here (Agnostic, Maybe) and here (Will Unwound). There are many more–too many to name or cite.

Steve Coffman over at Information Today posted an exhaustive and compelling discussion today entitled The Decline and Fall of the Library Empire. It is long, and if you’re limited in time then read, at least, the section on ebooks. It is the most comprehensive post on the complexity–and simplicity–of the issue that I have come across in a long time. Hey, if Tim Spalding of LibraryThing fame thinks it’s important, then I have to agree!

There are many good points made (and I have to admit that I skimmed parts), but one thing that struck me is this:

“However, statistics still show that ebooks that do make it into libraries seem to circulate pretty heavily, indicating that we are still providing a service our patrons value, even with these low price points and the millions of books available for nothing. Nonetheless, I think it becomes difficult to justify spending public tax monies to further reduce the cost of a service that is already cheap and broadly available. We may be reaching that point.”

Most people who can afford ereaders can afford to buy books for them. Libraries are, in effect, providing those readers with a luxury, at least at the present moment. The whole ebook world is still evolving–we don’t know just where it will end. Maybe what we should be focusing on instead–right now–is providing the devices with content instead of the content alone.

There has long been a debate within my own system about whether we should be providing the devices or just the content. Some of our libraries argue that we don’t circulate DVD players to play DVDs, so why should we circulate ereaders for ebooks?

However, libraries are ultimately about providing access. And the world is changing, rapidly. Instead of spending our ebook budget money on vendor subscriptions to “buy” disproportionately priced ebooks that we never own, maybe we should be spending more money on the devices. I know many libraries already do this, but maybe the focus should shift and more weight should be placed on the hardware–the means of delivery. Our customers may want to borrow ebooks for free, but if they can afford ereaders chances are they can afford to get the books they want. It is the group of people who can’t or don’t want to spend money on the devices that need our help, perhaps. As always, I am never sure of the answer. I simply like to point out alternatives.

I’m aware that ebooks do not have to be read exclusively on portable devices, but that’s how most people read them. And I’m not sure, exactly, how long or in what form the model by which libraries can purchase ereaders and load them with titles to circulate will last.

But it seems to me, more and more, that since we cannot provide our users with enough ebooks to satisfy them at a price that satisfies us, then maybe we should focus on what we can control, which is buying our own Kindles, Nooks, etc., loading them with content, and circulating them freely. Of course, this is not perfect, either. We are essentially choosing what our users can and cannot read. However, it serves two purposes–it provides users with a means to experience an ereader, and it circulates content with restrictions imposed by libraries as opposed to restrictions opposed by publishers and vendors.

Maybe I’m missing something obvious here. It is entirely possible. If so, please let me know. But isn’t it possible that in a newly digitized world, libraries should focus on providing our users with access and content at the same time? At the very least, it is definitely something to think about.