From research and pilot programs, digitization efforts and financial support for vendors, libraries have helped prepare the way for e-books. But now that the consumer market for e-books has taken off, are libraries in danger of being marginalized? A standing-room-only panel discussion on Saturday, January 8, at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in San Diego, looked at the challenges and opportunities e-books hold for libraries, with two overarching observations: e-books have arrived, and, as moderator Rick Weingarten noted in kicking off the discussion, e-books are not just another format—they are different, just as web pages are different from printed pages, and e-mail is different from regular mail. “And because e-books are different,” he said, “what libraries do with them is different.”

In addition to Weingarten, former director of ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy, the panel featured Internet Archive founder and digital librarian Brewster Kahle; Sue Polanka, head of reference and instruction at Wright State University and author of the e-book blog No Shelf Required; and Tom Peters, CEO of TAP Information Services. The e-book market is “going bananas,” Polanka told librarians, “and it is leaving us behind.” Although upbeat about the potential of e-books in libraries, Polanka bemoaned the restrictions on e-books that inhibit access and have hampered discoverability, and urged more dialogue with publishers and vendors. For his part, Peters spoke of two revolutions: e-reading, and a mobile revolution, powered by smartphones. He said the two revolutions held consequences for the “entire supply chain,” and suggested that as time passed, e-books would evolve in ways we’ve yet to imagine.

It was Kahle’s concerns about the developing e-book market that seemed to resonate most with librarians. “The e-book thing isn’t happening,” Kahle, noted “it has happened.” Kahle, who founded the Open Content Alliance, and Open Library project, a digitization program, offered a strong message to librarians: don’t let a few powerful corporations take control of the digital future. He expressed his longstanding concern over Google’s efforts to scan collections “and sell it back to us,” and urged libraries not to give up their traditional roles. “What libraries do is buy stuff, and lend it out,” he said, suggesting that libraries “digitize what we have to, and buy what we can,” but not to let the promise of licensed access turn libraries into agents for a few major corporations. “We do so at our peril.” He also urged more dialogue with publishers and vendors about the future of digital content and the role of libraries—but he also urged bold action.

In July, Kahle’s Open Library scanning efforts with Boston Public Library drew questions about whether they would be sued for its practice of scanning and lending in-copyright books. But Kahle told librarians after some initial hand wringing, there has been “nary a peep” from publishers, nor has the Internet Archive, which copies and preserves Web sites, faced legal challenges over its decade-plus long program. He said that was because content owners recognized that his ventures were open, non-profit, and culturally important. “We’re just doing what libraries do.”

In a substantial Q&A period, librarians further fleshed out the current e-book landscape. They questioned whether books would become a licensed access world, like that of academic journals. They talked about the benefits of broader access, and access for the print disabled afforded by e-books. And they spoke of user demand that points to 2011 as being a watershed year for e-books in libraries.

Sarah Rosenblum, a librarian from Henepin County in Minnesota, told PW that in 2010 her library system spent $35,000 on e-books. In 2011, they would spend $350,000. She said the expansion was based on “the overwhelming success,” of their first foray into service, powered by Vendor OverDrive, (which last week announced that library e-book downloads had shot up over 200% from 2009). Rosenblum said that every title was checked out, and had multiple holds, and the library's goal in offering more e-books was to meet demand, and not to frustrate all the library users who got an e-reader for Christmas and want e-books. While $350,000 is still a small percentage of the system’s $8 million materials budget, Rosenblum added that she would not be surprised if the system came to spend as much as 30% to 50% of its book budget on e-books within the next 5-10 years, as consumer demand grows.

At the same time, Rosenblum was moved by Kahle’s warnings about licensing access vs. buying materials. “It is something librarians and publishers need to grapple with,” she said. “Delivering content is near and dear to our hearts, and we’ve had interesting relationships with publishers. Sometimes they seem to focus more on how we lend out the books we buy rather than the fact that we buy books, thousands and thousands of books.”

At the end of the session, a librarian asked for worst case scenario for libraries in the e-book realm. “That we become customer service departments for a few major corporations,” Kahle said. “That libraries become museums,” Peters replied, striking the inherent tension between the library’s missions of preservation and curation, and providing wide access.