Amazon is at it again–this time looking to open a lending library for digital books (also covered here). The details: Amazon is supposedly discussing with publishers a way to get books on the e-tailer’s digital platform so users could read an unlimited number for a subscription fee. The digital library reportedly would be part of Amazon’s growing Prime services, which put unlimited streaming video under its umbrella earlier this year, in addition to giving subscribers free two-day shipping for $79/year. Amazon’s digital books library, which would basically operate like a “Netflix for Books” (as a side note, it seems relevant to point out that Netflix has had problems since Amazon’s Prime Streaming Video feature was added), would, like every announcement Amazon makes, momentously affect others. This time, those “others” are libraries.
Libraries have shared much of publishing’s uncertainty as physical books continue their slide. In Buffalo, Help Campaigns are being waged as libraries are finding less money for the purchase of materials. In Detroit, librarians and library employees are being laid off and hours of operation cut back to offset free-falling property taxes, which finance the libraries. In the UK, the Halifax Courier reports that residents are being asked to choose from six cost-cutting options in order to scale back the libraries’ budget by £150,000.
In addition to embracing digital books, libraries are trying everything under the sun in order to save themselves. In Baltimore, the December opening of the Howard County library will feature a computer classroom and historical center, as well as a garden “charming enough for weddings.” Other libraries are opening coffee shops and encouraging social interaction, basically trying to bring back the big box bookstore trend that made Barnes & Noble and Borders successful.
But can local branches, many already running dry, survive if Amazon gives Prime, which is becoming more and more of a deal at $79 as it decorates its price tag with feature after feature, and its users the capability to access any book a library could provide, without having to leave one’s home? Publishers, reportedly worried that Amazon’s digital library will devalue books in the eyes of consumers, obviously have the rights to the books and can put the brakes on the plan. But once one publisher signs, and assuming it finds success, expect a flood of others to follow. And really, it’s hard to imagine a feature that puts books right in front of your nose and charges you no additional cost not taking off.
Interestingly enough, Amazon’s digital library for a subscription fee idea is basically what Google was looking to achieve before it was condemned to litigation limbo. Google, in scanning thousands and thousands of books, was looking to present to subscribers a vast well of literature and research materials. And what makes this whole story even more interesting is that their first clients were to be institutions–like libraries.
Though Amazon’s digital library is still in its very early stages, and though it’s yet to be seen if the idea hits roadblock getting publishers to cooperate, it’s time to speculate about the future of libraries. In 10 years, what will be the closest thing to a library? Will the image the word evokes change from the one we all once had–a person sitting quietly rapt at a table, poring over a book (either for research or pleasure) while surrounded by shelves and shelves of more books–to an image of a person, never leaving his or her house, pressing a series of buttons on a high-res Amazon tablet screen to check out a lent book, scanning the lines using the device’s backlight instead of the low ceiling lights of a library?