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The WSJ is Wrong – Libraries Will Always Trump Kindle Unlimited

11252791576_0d4ea1ffb7_b[1] The Wall Street Journal has joined the chorus of voices comparing public libraries to subscription ebook services, and unfortunately its comparison is almost as false as the suggestion published by Forbes that libraries be replaced by Kindle Unlimited subscriptions.

Writing in yesterday’s WSJ, Geoffrey Fowler argues that public libraries offer a better value – for now:

But it turns out librarians haven’t just been sitting around shushing people while the Internet drove them into irrelevance. More than 90% of American public libraries have amassed e-book collections you can read on your iPad, and often even on a Kindle. You don’t have to walk into a branch or risk an overdue fine. And they’re totally free.

Though you still have to deal with due dates, hold lists and occasionally clumsy software, libraries, at least for now, have one killer feature that the others don’t: e-books you actually want to read.

The subscription companies say their services are designed to let you try more books without the barrier of committing to buy. But none of these services yet feel as complete as Spotify, the $10-per-month all-you-can-eat music streaming service I used to explore the latest Miley Cyrus album without the regret of buying it.

There was a spate of articles like this when Kindle Unlimited launched last month, and like Fowler’s piece several were tripped up on a key misunderstanding. Those pieces incorrectly assumed that public libraries were just warehouses for books. Like Fowler, those writers didn’t consider just how many services a public library offers.

To be fair, Fowler didn’t disparage libraries and and he did focus on just a single service public libraries offer, so let’s not ding him for missing the importance of unrelated services like resume assistance, community rooms, social activities, etc (which were barely mentioned in the second to last paragraph).

Even so, Fowler still missed the point that public libraries offer a lot of tech support services that Amazon, Oyster, and Scribd simply cannot provide.

For example, Amazon et al can’t lend you a PC with an internet connection to browse their catalogs. But public libraries can; 98% of US libraries offer free Wifi and internet access.

Amazon et al can’t offer you a way to simply walk up to a staffer and ask them to teach you how to use your new gadget. Sure, Amazon will talk you through using Kindle hardware but it will have to be over the phone. On the other hand, virtually all (98%) public libraries in the US offer tech training.

There’s more to reading ebooks than simply acquiring and loading them, and so long as users need tech support public libraries won’t just win any contest – they’ll blow their competition out of the water.

image by SafeLibraries

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Felipe Adan Lerma August 13, 2014 um 10:32 am

Great response article Nate, thank you!

I’d like to add that there’s also a substantial portion of the population that paying an extra $99 – $120 a year to read, means either food not bought, or pricey meds needed to stay alive.

And I’d like to say this was an exaggeration on my part, but I can assure you, I’m not even doing justice to the millions of people in this bind that worked all their lives, respect the law, and would probably not only smile and say hello to you without prompting, but share what little they have with you if you were in need.

And here’s a link to a great library example near Austin where I live, in San Antonio :

Diane August 13, 2014 um 12:50 pm

My county has a great downloadable library service that is supported through my tax dollars. I see no need to pay for a subscription service.

George August 13, 2014 um 2:41 pm

Maybe we can all take a step back from the edge and acknowledge that it doesn’t have to be either your library or Kindle Unlimited. That each can appeal to different people for different reasons and those reasons may change based on different circumstances in life.

As for me, I’m able to use both my local libraries and Kindle Unlimited. Sure, I’m paying an extra $10 a month for Kindle Unlimited but it’s cheaper than the satellite TV service I gave up last year. And I’m paying for my library through taxes.

I like both. I’m able to use both. I realize that’s not always the case for some people. But I reiterate it’s not an either/or choice.

Felipe Adan Lerma August 13, 2014 um 5:10 pm

George, totally agree, both are not only possible, but a very nice combination, it’s what I prefer for myself also.

I was more responding to the original article, which intimated that if and once Amazon has big author titles in Kindle Unlimited, libraries would lose their edge and become unnecessary. That seems a vary narrow view of what libraries do. My link in my comment above has some great info about a local project helping folk in Texas that would have had a very hard time otherwise.

Other links with great info are :

Nate’s link at the top of his article, where this guy in the UK says libraries should be closed, and folk given subscriptions to Kindle Unlimited, has attracted several hundred responses with librarians refuting the value of that idea.

But more to your point, even the CEOs of Scribd and Oyster have expressed that libraries and their subscription services are complimentary, rather than competitive.

In regard to Kindle Unlimited though, there’s some unsureness how Amazon views libraries. Their exclusivity requirement for an author to be in KU restricts them from placing work with libraries. However, this rule is mostly applied to the hundreds of thousands of authors, like myself, that are not that well known and are small and self-published. Well known or hot selling authors, are often allowed an exemption.

I’m of the hope Amazon will lift that restriction (to be in KU) entirely.

So, yes, I agree with you. Libraries and subscription services, except for KU, are not an either/or proposition, for authors or readers. And I’m both (smiles).

George August 13, 2014 um 5:51 pm

I wasn’t necessarily criticizing your comment, Felipe. 🙂

I do like Kindle Unlimited in particular because I read a lot of self pub and independent authors, whose works aren’t going to make it into a public library anytime soon. Or whose works are short stories or novellas, which also won’t make it into the libraries.

As for the guy in the UK who said all libraries should be closed down now, well, people will always say silly things. It’s somewhat similar to the people who started hysterically predicting that ereaders were going to be the death of paper books.

I got my first ereader in 2007, a Sony PRS-505, and after a year or two got a Kindle. While I primarily buy ebooks nowadays, that’s more a matter of personal preference as opposed to all paper books now being consigned to the dustbin of history.

Felipe Adan Lerma August 13, 2014 um 6:24 pm

I’ll be starting my free 30 day KU trial in the next few months, just trying to get my Scribd stash of must-reads down 🙂

Yeah, for me, I love all ways of reading. I read on my iPhone, my Kindle Fire, and my laptop. I read in apps and online. And, I have a nice stack of both paperbacks and hard covers via Half Price Books.

I think that’s the thing, it’s all good. Many people I know can only do libraries, and other will only do apps. It’s all good (smiles).

Best wishes, George –

jjj August 13, 2014 um 4:12 pm

That’s not enough for libraries to survive. Hell you can have Amazon sponsored park benches that can provide Wifi and AI assistance and be more convenient by being easier to get to. They could even let you read anything for free and only need to buy if you want to keep reading when you leave.

Libraries should have guaranteed access to any book at a price set by a regulator, this is what could and should keep them alive, at least until Kindle Unlimited and the likes become free. Ofc there can be a social element to libraries but that hasn’t really been enough for book stores in general so it won’t be enough for libraries , convenience wins.
It’s also debatable if many libraries won’t be online only soon, it’s cheaper not to have costly buildings and fewer employees .Free access to books is important but it’s harder and harder to find any trace of decency in politicians so maybe libraries will become and endangered species.
I should expand a bit on some points but don’t really have the time now .

Syn August 13, 2014 um 6:16 pm

My public library is in that 10% that hasn’t went ebooks at all. The city cut them off as far as paying their property taxes, (why does a library have to pay that anyway?)and they are in the process of trying to get the surrounding tax papers to agree to a property tax height so they can survive. Which I have no problem with, providing the city gives it to them and doesn’t embezzle it.

I know that particular library has a lot of day programs. Book reading, writing contests, movies etc for the kids and a lot of parents that can’t afford babysitters use the public libraries as a safe place for their kids to be while they are at work and still have something productive for the kids to do. Libraries isn’t just about books anymore.

That said, I think libraries need to find a way to become a more sustainable business model. Nate mentioned that Kindle affiliate plan that the one college made 82 grand off of. While I wouldn’t expect a small time local library to make that, why can’t the libraries sigh up for something like that. Many people might use the link for their store page without even going to the library. But the library would benefit.

I still think they should raise the funds, and adapt the Barnes and Nobles store front model. Go in, get a latte or juice, check out some books. One thing that never changes, people like to eat. Especially kids. That could help them generate funds.

Why doesn’t Amazon give away some Kindle Unlimited accounts to the libraries? Or at least at a big discount. Especially the ones that can’t get OverDrive yet.

Anyway, just a few thoughts I had on it.

Felipe Adan Lerma August 13, 2014 um 6:26 pm

Those are some pretty good ideas. I hope your library gets to try a bunch and several of them work. Yes, people do like to congregate and hang-out safely, so little cafes and bistros inside libraries, why not? (smiles) Whatever a community wants and needs its library to do, that’s what it should do. It’s that community’s resource.

Syn August 13, 2014 um 7:16 pm

Exactly. I suspect most of the crying is over the cities wanting to do something else with the funds.

I know when I went to my local (if 40 miles is local) Barnes and Noble last winter, they had the fire place going. I sat by the fire, watched the snow through the window, sipping on my latte and reading an ebook. It was so cozy my friend had to drag me out of there and it was packs. Everyone on laptops or readers sipping drinks, eating donuts and it was a nice experience. I think its something like that the libraries should try to mimic.

The few libraries I’ve been are anything but inviting. I do believe in them. I would love to support them, but they need to give me incentive to want to go.

beth August 14, 2014 um 6:58 am

My library has all the ebooks I want to read. I have been watching Kindle Unlimited, and it is limited in the available books. They don’t make available all the books I want to read or have read at library. Check it out and compare.

John Fox August 14, 2014 um 10:53 am

The article presents a very slanted view. Amazon has far more technical books that the library will ever have. While I agree the library probably has a lot of dry, dusty tomes that Amazon will never have, Kindle has enough books to feed my leisure reading requirements. Many of them completely free.

I am not against libraries, but the statement that they 'trump' Kindle Unlimited is only presented in a very narrow view. When I can carry an entire bookshelf of reference and fiction books on my phone, and they are the ones I both need and enjoy, the library became irrelevant to me personally.

But, to be fair, when they got rid of the card catalogs, I stopped going. I loved using those things!

Nate Hoffelder August 14, 2014 um 12:41 pm

As I understand it, KU is primarily focused on fiction. Don’t you mean " Amazon has far more technical books" _for_sale_? That’s not the same thing.

Dan Kleinman of SafeLibraries August 15, 2014 um 3:23 pm

I’m happy to see people like/use my pictures of libraries. I take them just for this purpose, to share. Thank you!

Vicki August 21, 2014 um 5:48 pm

Libraries are not about providing a cosy place to read. A library is a gateway to all knowledge with someone to guide the way. Amazon can provide coffee and doughnuts, librarians provide access to centuries of literature and research.

Syn August 22, 2014 um 3:14 pm

It doesn’t matter what its suppose to be about. If its not inviting, people won’t bother nor want to go there. The 60’s decor of my library is so depressing that there have been times I wanted to go, but didn’t want to be in the environment.

Shallow maybe, but it is what it is.

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