When I got my Kindle, one of the major frustrations was that I couldn’t check out library e-books. This alone almost stopped me from buying the Kindle; it wasn’t until Amazon announced that it was working on a system for library loans that I finally committed myself to the purchase. And when I finally could borrow e-books, I flung myself into reacquainting myself with light fiction. You know these books: you enjoy reading them, you really do, but you’ll never read any of them a second time, and even buying them used seems like a waste of money. I put together a sizable wish list on the library’s website and began working my way through one e-book after another. I’d forgotten I could get through books that fast. When I love non-fiction, I slow down to ponder the ideas; with fiction, I speed up to see what happens next.
It’s been sweet. It’s been fun. It ends tonight.
See, the public library e-book resources around here aren’t distributed evenly. The neighboring library system has a collection roughly ten times larger than my library’s (they have a bigger budget and they started building their collection earlier). Not that this really mattered up until now because we could all borrow from all the local libraries, regardless of which city or suburb we actually lived in. So if an e-book was available through my library, that was great, but usually I ended up looking through the other library’s collection.
But you may have noticed that the economy is a bit shaky. Public libraries are funded by tax dollars, and those have been drying up for years now. Both libraries have had their funding cut; each has had to come up with a way to stretch the remaining money as far as possible. My library cut 34 hours, scattered through the 11 libraries in the system, with everyone hoping that no one branch suffers too badly. The library next door took a different approach. No cuts to hours, no staff cuts, but they limited how much stuff patrons could borrow and who could do the borrowing. One of the new restrictions is that only their county’s residents can borrow their e-books effective January 1.
Of course I’m frustrated. Who’d want to be limited to a tiny selection of e-books after having access to a much bigger one? But I’m also worried about a larger implication. What kind of precedent is this setting? Will other libraries in the area begin limiting their services to their own residents? One strength of libraries has been their ability to get materials for their patrons that they themselves don’t own. Sure, I can still get print materials from the library next door, and I’m likely to do so, but what happens if the budget goes downhill again? Between this, and publisher uncertainty about how to manage e-book deals with libraries, I end up glumly worrying about the future of libraries overall.