For the printed book purist, the mere suggestion of libraries lending eBooks conjures up images of empty shelves, redundant librarians and tumbleweeds drifting across abandoned buildings. However, leaving aside sentimental arguments about the superiority or inferiority of the different formats, the reality is that many libraries now offer a selection of eBooks available for download. Although eBook lending is growing, several questions need to be asked about the future development of this new technology. Most importantly, with so many libraries under significant financial pressure, are eBooks actually worth the investment?
At the moment, probably not. I think the main problem is that publishers have yet to find an adequate model for licensing eBooks to libraries and have mostly been extremely reluctant to confront the issue despite the rapid increase in e-reader sales. The issue with HarperCollins, for example, is that their policy continues to treat eBooks in the same way as printed books despite the former being subject to a licence and the latter being purchased in a one-off sale. At the moment, the licence of one of their eBooks automatically expires after it has been “borrowed” 26 times as with a printed book. While a printed book that has been read from cover to cover 26 times may well be falling apart, eBooks do not physically wear out. HarperCollins eBooks also cannot be lent out to more than one person at the same time so a library would have to purchase multiple licences. In theory, easy access for texts in high demand ought to be one of the benefits of eBooks in libraries and yet this isn’t always the case.
Piracy is another significant issue as the DRM (Digital Rights Management) protecting the copyright of eBooks can easily be removed. In 2011, Penguin Group announced that it was suspending new eBooks for libraries citing security concerns and only resumed lending last year. Libraries are also restricted by the large number of different e-readers and formats currently available. OverDrive, the most popular system for borrowing eBooks, isn’t compatible with a Kindle as it is only available in the EPUB format. This means that I am currently unable to access eBooks unless I want to read them from a computer screen. Moreover, the selection of eBooks can often be quite narrow with only a small number of more popular titles available. I have yet to find any eBooks on my local library website that I would have wanted to borrow even if my Kindle was compatible with Overdrive.
Ultimately, it is in the interests of both libraries and publishers that people continue to read and therefore they need to work together to find a viable and fair model for lending eBooks. The vast number of different policies for different publishers is confusing and frustrating for all involved. I wonder if some sort of pay-per-lend model would be a suitable compromise. It would ensure that publishers and authors continue to receive income from eBooks which never need physically replacing. It would also be less of an investment risk for libraries with squeezed budgets. However, this may have negative consequences for booksellers with lower numbers of sales.
Even if eBook lending does become more widespread with more people accessing them remotely, I don’t think this would result in libraries becoming empty spaces. Original manuscripts, newspapers and other non-digital resources still need a home and library buildings are often used as community centres for a whole range of purposes. Moreover, if the response to my post last year on the rise of eBooks is anything to go by, there are plenty of people out there who remain completely devoted to printed books.
What do you think? Do we need to embrace future technology or is the whole idea more hassle than it’s worth?