Awhile back Fox News Chicago’s Anna Davlantes got excoriated for suggesting that libraries might be a waste of money in a digital age. It was a dopey report, but it did sort of inadvertently raise a decent question: how will libraries adapt to the increasing digitization of content? It opens up a lot of great possibilities, but the fact that digital concept is as much a new concept as a new technology also makes it tricky.

The CPL, in my opinion, does a nice job with digital content: they’ve got a good collection of audio books, and they lend digital books in EPUB, MOBI, and PDF forms. The selection is miniscule—it sends me back to my days of going to the county library, not without nostalgia—but I don’t really blame them. Today Jessamyn West, proprietor of and “rural librarian geek” points me to a comment she left at Wired which I think explains a lot, and should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the wild world of DRM:

As it is, libraries that circulate digital *audio* books [the only thing they can really effectively circulate thanks to the blessings of the people who knew they could make DRM do what the publishers wanted] pay for the content yearly. So you the patron save money, but you the taxpayer lose it. Digital content costs hundreds of dollars more than its non-digital version. And it’s got a whole bunch of crazy rules governing what you can and can’t do with it.

Access to technology is one thing; it’s still expensive, but Amazon’s Kindle 2 (excellent on a technological level—I got one for my wife, and I think it’s superior in most respects to my Sony Reader Pocket edition—but somewhat frustrating from a DRM standpoint, being incompatible with EPUB, the closest thing to mp3 in e-books) is down to $139. Which is still expensive, but the price point isn’t bad and is heading down. But development, distribution, and rights protection remain expensive. Print eliminates a lot of these questions, and is a centuries-old technology—meaning that we’ve had plenty of time to adapt it to the public-library model. I expect that digital lending will get there, but I don’t think it can be rushed easily. It might seem paradoxical that digital distribution is more expensive, but only if you look at it from a user standpoint.

Speaking of the CPL, I’ve been meaning to give kudos to whoever curates their graphic novel selection, which is very good. I tend to digest graphic novels pretty quickly, which means that were it not for the CPL reading Osamu Tezuka’s eight-volume life of the Buddha would have cost me a couple hundred dollars over the course of a couple weeks.