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e-book lending, e-books vs print books

Should libraries get out of the e-book business? No, they should be fighting their way in with everything they’ve got…

by Louise Morrison

Reading the article Should libraries get out of the ebook business? by Bobbi Newman got me thinking about the importance of library e-book lending in the current climate:

In an interesting and thoughtful article, Newman suggests that libraries should stop lending e-books altogether until a better e-book lending model is available and the publisher landscape has settled on devices and formats. As the proportion of the population owning an e-reader is still relatively low (she estimates 19%), libraries’ limited budgets could (temporarily) be better spent elsewhere.

For many librarians struggling to balance decreasing funds with a time-consuming and costly e-book lending system, I’m sure this article will strike a lot of chords. And if we’re just looking at the very short-term, then her proposed solution could make sense. Perhaps some libraries could serve their current patrons’ needs more cost effectively by removing themselves from the e-book market.

But I think this article misses one vital point: as librarians we need to think beyond the needs of our current patrons and plan for the needs of future users in many years to come.  And right now that means carving a strong place for ourselves in the e-book market to guarantee our future survival.

I think we’ve reached a crucial point in e-book development. The fact that the whole system is in flux at the moment is the very reason why we need to be fighting to remain a part of it. If we wait until the publishing industry has settled on pricing models, devices and formats we may find it has also settled into an industry that no longer includes libraries at all.

Like it or not e-books are here to stay, e-reader ownership is accelerating and the shift away from print may happen more quickly than we think. A recent survey found that the percentage of Americans owning e-readers jumped from 10% to 19% between mid December and mid January while a UK survey estimated that 1 in 40 adults was given an e-reader as a Christmas present. Even taking into account the Christmas boom, it seems likely that the ownership percentage will increase rapidly in coming months and the e-book landscape may look very different in a year’s time – maybe even in 6 months’ time.

Libraries can advocate from outside the e-book market, certainly. However, at a time when libraries are struggling to prove their relevancy, I think moving away from e-book lending, even temporarily, sends a dangerous message to our patrons. It might satisfy many of our current print-based users in the short term (and would no doubt please some library staff), but these are not the users of the future.

Even though it’s complicated and costly and we might not be able to provide all the books that our patrons want, I still think it’s vital that libraries maintain their presence in the e-book lending market one way or another. If public perception is that libraries “don’t do e-books”, I think it might be the beginning of the end. And what effect would that have on future generations? No more free and equal access to information for all? A literary world dominated solely by commercial enterprises?

Far from getting out of the e-book business I think we should be fighting our way in with everything we’ve got. We owe it to our future users.

I would be very interested to hear what everyone else thinks about this issue. Please comment!

  • We’re excited to announce that Stewart Bain aka @OrkneyLibrary will be speaking at the MmITS AGM on Tuesday 24th April in Glasgow University Library! See our website for more details.

About mmitscotland

CILIP Scotland special interest group. Find out how developments in Multimedia, Information and Technology are impacting on the library sector.


5 thoughts on “Should libraries get out of the e-book business? No, they should be fighting their way in with everything they’ve got…

  1. Absolutely. Leaving the e-book business would be madness. We’d have no idea what publishers would develop in the absence of any librarian input/feedback, nothing good from our point of view I’m sure! Also as e-readers become more common, we’ll be failing to provide for an increasing number of patrons who once gone, will be difficult to get back. We’re an academic library, so our situation is slightly different. We have one ebook provider (Dawsonera) whose access and delivery methods we’re happy with. We have turned down every approach from other e-book publishers who have come to us, telling them their access model doesn’t suit us. I’m hoping at least some of them will get the message eventually.

    Posted by David Hughes | March 12, 2012, 12:52 pm
  2. E-books are the future of books and libraries there is no escaping the inevitable. The problem is the technology and licensing landscape is still to immature. In Oxfordshire for example, they are cutting the libraries budget by 25% yet they have still found £43,560 for the start up costs and with a annual cost of £35,598. The selection is very poor and crucially the e-books are not compatible with kindle, the most popular reader, because of licensing issues. There is no way of predicting what the terms and costs would be if amazon do decide to allow e-books on their device. Considering most e-books purchases are also paper back type fiction then there is also an issue of demand, most books that have made into e-books are quite cheap to purchase anyway and don’t take up the space paperbacks do. The space thing is why I don’t buy paper backs anyway. There are similar issues with the rush to audio book downloads, the current offering from OCC is very poor, doesn’t work on any of the three major smart phones, most ipods and only works on old fashioned dedicated mp3 players because of the microsoft drm technology in use. Making all these things work and to be able to prevent piracy is key to libraries survival but I think a wait and see approach in the current climate of cuts would have been better because investments made now is money wasted until the digital licensing issues and compatibility problems are sorted out which I personally think is still 2-3 years away. Radio survived TV and I think there will still be a place for printed books long after I’m gone.

    Posted by Trevor Craig | March 18, 2012, 4:15 pm
  3. Sorry, P.S I read a lot in the bath, I’m not risking a kindle/ipad in there! 😀

    Posted by Trevor Craig | March 18, 2012, 4:18 pm
  4. Have a look at this at

    “OCC (Oxfordshire County Council) have introduced e-books with a initial spend of £43,560 and a annual cost of £35,598 while cutting 25% out of the library budget partially by withdrawing up to 50% of staff funding rural libraries (and one city). They are also spending £150,074 (estimate) putting wifi in every one of the libraries.70 people have written and asked for e-books, anecdotally they say lots of people have asked verbally too. 70 out of 680,000.” … “They would saved lots of money if they had put the ebooks/audio books/wifi on the back burner for a few years until things settle down and all the major parties can get their heads together and agree on proper standards, it can them be available to all rather than to select devices. This isn’t the public sector way though, evidence of effectiveness, demand or need mean nothing. Its new and shiny therefore we must have it now.”

    Food for thought there.

    Also, it strikes me that we are in the position of public libraries before Public Lending Right. At the moment, we are at the mercy of the publishers. We need to move heaven and earth to get the politicians to extend PLR to ebooks. Otherwise, what’s the point? If we’re successful lending ebooks, publishers will withdraw permission for us to use them. They are already doing so. Why should they let us lend their books/profit for free? Ebooks are not books – new library books were never free at home, one always had to spend time to get them.

    But … here’s another problem. If we are successful in getting PLR for Ebooks (Labour has already signed up, the Conservatives unsurprisingly haven’t even commented on the subject as far as I can see) then that removes the main unique selling point of public libraries in five, six, ten years’ time when ebook readers become ubiquitous.

    As public librarians, it is therefore tempting to run away from the issue while whistling nonchalantly.

    Certainly, at the moment, we’re still in a Betamax/VHS situation. On acid.

    Posted by Ian Anstice | March 19, 2012, 9:37 pm
  5. Well written article. Totally interesting and very provovative. Absolutely will share.

    Posted by Business Planning | November 8, 2012, 11:17 pm

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