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Viewpoint: Technology 

David Ratledge 


All-You-Can-Read Services and Public Libraries

David Ratledge

Speaking as both a librarian and an avid reader, I love books of all kinds, but I love e-books the most. An e-book only weighs and takes up as much space as its reading device, and one e-book or one thousand are all the same. Common features such as the ability to sync across multiple reading devices so I can put one down in the morning and pick another up in the afternoon and start reading from where I left off, the ability to look up unfamiliar words in a built-in dictionary, the ability to search, and more, are all reasons why e-books are my favorite type of book.

Because of this, I have followed with interest the development of all-you-can-read services such as Oyster, Scribd, and most recently, Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited. It is exciting that e-book technology is providing the means to create such services, but concern has arisen that all-you-can-read services might negatively impact public libraries. However, many have already compared all-you-can-read services with public libraries and concluded they are not the beginning of the end. I agree but believe they are worth paying further attention to because I think there is a lot that can be learned from them. As an experiment I make the following comparisons between my local public library and all-you-can-read services from the perspective of a reader.

Before using a public library it is first necessary to get a library card. In my county there are two ways to do that depending on whether one is a resident or not. If not a resident, you can mail in an application with payment for an annual fee, and you will receive your library card back in the mail. If a resident, you have to apply in person. For an all-you-can-read service you go online at any time of day or night, enter your personal information and provide payment, then access is immediately granted with no waiting on the mail or having to physically travel anywhere.

The loan period at my local public library is twenty-one days for most items. This may be okay for many, but I personally do not find twenty-one days workable. Frequently it feels like I just looked down for what was meant to be a moment, only to look up and find it is suddenly a week later. All-you-can-read services, however, do not have time limitations so you can take as long as needed to read any title you currently have downloaded to your reading device.

It is normal that only a few copies, and often only one, of an e-book are available for checkout at a public library. This results in long wait times for popular titles. With all-you-can-read services, every e-book is available at all times to every subscriber.

With just these few points of comparison, and in spite of how guilty the librarian in me feels, it is plainly obvious that only an all-you-can-read service would work for me. It comes down to accessibility and convenience. When I wake up at 2 a.m. on Sunday and want to access my public library’s online e-book collection for the first time, can I do that? No, because I first have to wait until the following week and hope I can find the time to go in person to apply for a library card. With an all-you-can-read service I can just go to my computer, apply for an account, make payment, and I am in. Should I have already had a library card there is a very good chance, especially with a new and popular title, that I will go online at my public library only to find the e-book I want is already checked out and there are seventeen people with holds waiting for it ahead of me. With an all-you-can-read service, I just make my selection and begin reading. It does not matter how many other subscribers have already made the same choice. Should I manage to borrow the e-book I want, I may read for a couple of hours, get pulled into the story, fall asleep, and then life happens and I do not have time to return to it for two weeks. At that time perhaps I read for another hour or two, life happens some more, and suddenly it is due to be returned the next day and I am nowhere close to finishing. Maybe I will be able to renew it, but maybe not. This would be a very frustrating and wasteful experience.

In my opinion all-you-can-read services are currently the better option when it comes to e-books, because they remove the barriers to access that are still very common in public libraries. Even so, I would much rather use my public library and would gladly give the same in payment each month as I would give to an all-you-can-read service, provided a way is found to remove all the unwanted barriers and provide identical (and I am certain, even better) service to readers.



David Ratledge is Associate Professor and Coordinator of Technology Services at The University of Tennessee Libraries, Knoxville. He can be reached at 




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