Invisible Library Books
If you’re browsing the stacks at the library and find a particular book difficult to find, you might be looking in the wrong place. With eBook sales soaring and the popularity of eReader devices at a steady high, some libraries are turning towards electronic book lending, or “e-lending,” as a way forward. Yet, while e-lending may seem a practical move for libraries in the digital age, making the service possible has been difficult.
According to The
three quarters of US libraries offer eBooks (even the Library of Congress offers eBooks). In December 2012, the Pew Research Center released a study that found that the number
of library users borrowing eBooks increased modestly from 3% to 5%. Compared to Amazon, however, who has for sale more than 1.7
million eBooks, the
“average public library makes available
only 4,350 e-books.”
E-lending may not be causing books to fly off the (virtual) shelves, but it has provided a service more suitable for the 21st century library patron. The Economist explains that, “e-lending is frictionless: any user with the right privileges can download a digital file instantly (at the end of the borrowing period it self-destructs).” The concept sounds ideal for borrowers and for librarians in a world where many patrons no longer want to carry around hard copy texts. However, the idea does present some complications.
Unlike hard copy books, which can be rented without restriction, eBooks are not as free to roam, as each eBook and/or publisher has its own laws, regulations, and procedures regarding e-lending.
With a publishing world struggling to make ends meet, eBooks have provided a beacon of hope for earning revenue. However, the idea of libraries circulating and re-circulating eBooks means that less people will be purchasing them from big sellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, which in turn, means less money. As a result, the amount of revenue a publishing company makes on selling eBooks to libraries has come under scrutiny, as some publishers set high prices in order to make sure they have the greatest possible return.
It is also unlikely that libraries would deal with a publisher one-on-one, and instead there is usually always a middleman in the process of bargaining for eBooks. OverDrive and ebrary are both eBook distributors that cater to libraries.
The difficult part of this process is making agreements with individual publishers looking to protect their profits. Random House sells eBooks to libraries at high price, but libraries can circulate them endlessly and own them forever, whereas Macmillian only allows libraries to own eBooks for two years or until they have been rented 52 times. After conducting a months long study on how libraries lend eBooks, Penguin has agreed to make new eBook releases available to libraries. However, the library can only purchase them for one year, after which they must pay an additional fee. Simon and Shuster is the one of the big publishing names who has chosen not to license eBooks to libraries.
There are some attempts to make the process easier and cheaper. In the United States, new state legislation in Connecticut would require all publishers to offer eBooks to libraries at a fair price. Libraries in the state of Washington are seeing their efforts to pressure publishing companies to lower eBook prices pay off as well.
There are other attempts to find a good model for e-lending services. The United Kingdom recently commissioned an independent review by William Sieghart which examines e-lending in British public libraries. The review states that e-lending should be recommended to libraries but that publishers should be protected, with eBooks coming under the same restrictions as physical book loans.
E-lending is an obvious way forward for libraries in the 21st century, but the process of making the service possible is proving difficult. Aside from the struggles with profit-protecting publishing companies over renting out eBooks, offsite lending with electronic publications could also mean that libraries will see a drop in the number of patrons visiting on a regular basis if they can rent a book from home. With less people visiting libraries, the use of a physical space, as well as the employees who run it, may no longer be necessary. Thus, an attempt to find a way to solve financial difficulties could actually make things worse in the long run, depending on the success of e-lending.