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The Changing Role of Libraries in the Digital Age

As America shifts in the way it consumes literature and other content, one thing has not changed -- the library must continue to play a central role in providing open and free access to information and ideas.
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"We believe that free communication is essential to the preservation of a free society and a creative culture. ~ American Library Association

Since the founding of our country, libraries have always been important to freedom. Today we are in the midst of a tremendous shift in the way Americans consume literature and other content, but one thing has not changed -- the library must continue to play a central role in providing open and free access to information and ideas.

Exactly what that role looks like is the subject of much debate and many differing perspectives. Some believe libraries will shift into learning and information centers while others insist they will maintain their role as a physical location for cataloging and loaning books -- in addition to housing sources of information technology.

While providing books was a standalone function for libraries throughout the last few centuries, their offerings have evolved with the digital age to meet the changing needs of their patrons. In fact, according to an article in the November 2009 issue of American Libraries, more than 71 percent of public libraries provide their community's only free public access to computers and the Internet. Not surprisingly then -- due to the economic hardship -- more people are using libraries. A study sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and published by the Institute of Museum and Library Services last year found that 69 percent of Americans 14 years of age or older visited a public library in 2009.

Regardless of its exact nature, technology will play an increasing role in shaping our future libraries. For centuries, the book publishing industry has worked closely with and supported libraries, and they have done so without influencing the freedom of the institution. It is now time for the technology industry to step up and play a similar role.

Here is how technologists can, and should, help support libraries:
  • Offer training and support -- free of charge -- to libraries for items such as digital reading devices, tablets and other media devices. Helping technology companies as well as libraries, this will serve to educate the general public in the long run.
  • Provide special access to materials - something publishers have been doing for years. While technologists can't always control pricing, we can offer special programs to help educate the public and broaden access.
  • Open lines of communication, offering libraries insight into how technologists see the market evolving. This will help library administrators make informed decisions regarding the future of their institutions.

Free means Free
Digital reading has taken off over the past three years in ways that no one would have imagined a decade ago. Earlier this year, the Book Industry Study Group reported that eBook sales rose from 1.5% of all book sales in Q1 2009 to 5% in Q1 2010. This is a wonderful thing in many respects - digital reading makes it easier to publish and distribute materials than ever before. But, the race is also on to lock down the market on ebooks by locking consumers into a specific platform, and this is the equivalent of curbing access.

Sony's Perspective
At Sony, we believe there is a place for public/private partnerships. That's why we're so excited to be working closely with libraries and librarians across the country as part of our Reader Library Program. While there are several different views on the future of libraries, we believe that digital reading will be at the core of libraries, regardless of how they grow and evolve.

Sony's Reader Library Program is designed to help libraries overcome the challenges of adopting eBooks and educating their constituencies on how to borrow, read and make the most of digital reading content. eBooks, like traditional paper books, will play an important role in our civic and cultural life, but only if they are made broadly available and people understand how to access and use them. Sony's Reader Library Program includes four main components:
  • A training program for library staff developed by Sony. This training includes in-person workshops, video training and additional materials available on the web, covering digital reading formats, an overview of sources for digital materials, and training on Sony's Reader digital reading devices.
  • Sony's Reader digital reading devices for use by library staff.
  • Educational materials to provide readers some background on digital reading devices.
  • Bi-annual update sessions designed to keep libraries and their staff current with the latest developments in digital reading content, format and devices.

We believe it is extremely important to support public library systems as they expand their digital offerings and our initiative will provide these professionals with training and additional resources that will enable them to inform their patrons on how to benefit from their growing eBook collections. With this type of support, we believe they'll not only survive, but thrive in continuing to provide free access to knowledge in the digital age.

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