Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Kindle Question

At the "Core vs. Context" session at the NITLE Summit, Rick Holmgren of Allegany College likened the dilemma of higher ed library and IT services to that of newspapers, making reference to Clay Shirky's piece on the latter.

Hopefully, I'll find some time to blog more on that session. But for now, I thought I'd toss out an idea that came to me this morning. Ever since that session, I've been thinking about a trigger might cause the current "organizational form" of the academic library to collapse.

Could new models for e-books be that trigger?

A liberal arts college library like ours does around 100,000 circulation transactions a year. We spend around $500K to buy print books. The staff time devoted to book selection, acquisitions, cataloging, ILS administration, circulation, stacks maintenance, etc. would easily equal $300K a year. I imagine that the space used to house the book stacks for a 400,000 volume collection in a library like ours is worth $200K a year or more not including study spaces in the library, computer labs, special collections, etc. (it would cost that much to rent similar space with all utilities included, etc.).

What if all the books that a college like ours needed were available electronically for the Kindle price of $10 each? $10 X 100,000 circ transactions=$1,000,000, about what libraries like ours are spending right now to keep up a print collection. So our library should just give a million dollars to Amazon a year and be done with it, right?

That begs the question, why even have the library or the college as the middle-man? Instead of raising their tuition for another year in a row, why not pass the $1,000,000 savings on to students, and let them buy the books they need themselves?

Of course, this is an extreme scenario, impossible at the moment. Currently, the Kindle only has a small fraction of the books we purchase and house. Most of our books cost more than $10 each, though this might be different if the economics of book sales changed. Institutionally purchasing content does have potential advantages in cost savings and perhaps the incentive it gives students to read and research widely without thinking about incremental costs.

The point I guess is that the network can remove the advantages that print institutions had in bundling together information. The bundle of information that a library provides in its stacks (and web site) might lose its value in the same way that the bundle of information that is a print (or even online) newspaper has.

Information is atomized in the network environment and middle man organizations are increasingly irrelevant. Libraries, bookstores, publishers are essentially middle men between the author and the reader just as newspapers are (were) middle men between journalist and reader.

1 comment:

Rick Peterson said...

The definition of value may be a little too narrow here. Isn't there some merit in providing access to knowledge for people outside of an academic institution's students, staff, and faculty?

While some academic libraries may be tucked away in an isolated location with little public traffic (Lewis & Clark), many are relied upon by those not privileged enough to be associated with a college or university.

I don't think we're "a fortress of knowledge bigotry" (yet), but I do think we should be aware of how moves toward emerging technologies can take away the value academic institutions provide to the community and, especially, those who can't afford a $400 reader or the paid access to the information itself.