Will E-Books Stop Libraries' Falling Membership Numbers?

By October 26, 2009

New technologies are constantly blamed for destroying traditional models – journalism, Hollywood, the music industry, even water cooler gossip – a fury for tradition prevalent in any time of innovation. It's tired and reactionary to argue that the old models that are being replaced are the final yardsticks by which culture should be measured, even if it makes for nice copy. It is therefore refreshing to see an example in which the dizzying changes tech has created, especially in the last five years, are not bringing the old-media Matthew Arnolds of the world down from the mount.

UK Libraries are apparently benefiting from the e-reader boom, reports the Telegraph. Loaning e-books add convenience, as they are available for download from the library’s site – no need to have to travel to get them – and are automatically deleted from a library member’s e-reader when the due date is reached (full disclosure: I have four books overdue from the library at this very moment).

These two things alone show how convenient e-books can be for library members. Not having to carry a heavy pile of books around with you is another obvious benefit.

But how does this benefit libraries? For one, the availability of e-books has driven up membership in the library profiled in the Register’s piece, which does a little to make up for the 40 million in membership that UK libraries have lost in the last decade. It would also increase a library's inventory, making it more stable and less costly at the same time.

Fundamentally, the internet fulfills many of the functions that public libraries were initially designed for when the Scientific Revolution went mainstream in the 17th century, when the institution first became prevalent: giving access to information that had up to that point been the privilege of a wealthy few.

When internet access and e-readers become so cost-effective that barriers to use are significantly reduced, the public library model will have to be rethought. But that's still a long time away.

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