why e-books won’t make libraries irrelevant, and a few other truths about information work

If, as a library worker, you’ve ever had the pleasure of introducing your field of work to strangers at a party, then you’ve likely had a few of them respond with something like “Oh my god, you must be so bored” or the classic “Jealous! I’d love to read all day.” That’s my favourite one. Equally as essential to my career confidence are those who declare defiantly that I am doomed to failure, for lo and behold, my chosen field will perish. Libraries will shutter their doors for the last time, just after I’ve paid off all my fines! And it’s usually blamed on e-books. Well, to those pesky naysayers, here are a few reasons why you’re totally and completely wrong.

1. The reality of (e)book costs

Let’s just address this right off the bat: e-books can be expensive little buggers because how they work for libraries differs drastically from how they operate for the average consumer. When you buy a personal e-book, you own it. You pay one single charge. That’s it. However. when an e-book is “borrowed” from a library, they may charged for that single specific loan and/or pay leasing costs for a finite number of loans. It’s not the same as a person buying an e-book; there are continuous maintenance costs. So why would libraries even go for e-books? These charges can even out over time compared to a physical item (whose maintenance costs include shelving space, and labour to catalogue, repair, reshelve, and replace the physical book as necessary). Digital copies are also extremely popular with patrons and can cut down on costs of sending books between branches.

Bottom line: Just because a book is digital doesn’t mean it’s treated that differently from a physical item. It’s not going to put me out of a job. Trust me.

2. People still don’t know how e-books or printer or [insert piece of tech here] work

I can tell you with absolute certainty that there are still people (youths, even!) who aren’t sure how e-books work. It might just be their specific setup (different readers, Mac vs. PC, unfamiliarity with discovery path, etc.), and others just don’t care. We are creatures of habit; if someone is comfortable with accessing information by their specific path and it doesn’t include e-books, they will be (I repeat, will be) hesitant to stray. I’ve worked in an academic library for four years and I’ve helped loads of people gain access to digital copies of information, many for the first time. The same goes for any piece of new technology or process. We get accustomed to our own user experience and freak out when change comes along to take us for a spin.

Bottom line: People learn differently and trust learning centers to guide them to their end goal.

3. Our skills are adaptable

Librarians won’t be out of work and if you think we will be, we won’t. We’ll just have different names for what we do. We’re information professionals and we are nothing if not resourceful. Those with library training (and I mean every level of library work: volunteers, shelvers, clerks, programmers, library technicians, librarians) have skill sets that can be taken to many different fields. The varied nature of information work lends itself well to other fields; we have the ability to harness information and filter it to an appropriate audience. We work with different demographics and mediums. We’re extremely organized (or we pretend to be) and can develop and maintain intensely detailed organizational structures. Can you think of any business or institution where these skills wouldn’t be well received?

Bottom line: Savvy info workers will find work. Don’t sweat it. And the encompassing bottom line is that information workers are creative and innovative. How else do you think libraries have lasted so long? We have mad innovation skills and we’re not afraid to use them.


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