eBooks in Libraries: Worth the Investment?

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?

eBooks and libraries

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?


Filed under Books

25 responses to “eBooks in Libraries: Worth the Investment?

  1. hls

    I think that digital borrowing will be the next big step for libraries, however, like most things that are digital, the laws are yet to catch up with the products. My old university in Australia was really good with online borrowing of academic texts and articles, although with fiction books, it was a similar problem to what you described.


    • Yes, I was heavily dependent on online resources for my studies at university too and I think it is in this context that eBook lending is truly beneficial. For non-academic purposes, I’m not so sure.


      • hls

        There needs to be a stock standardised file for ebooks. I had so many dramas trying to get some ebooks to work on my Kobo. Once libraries do that, it might make it a bit easier for borrowers.


  2. I think digital innovation is something we should embrace, as it opens a lot of doors for publishers. There’s book-apps, which make reading a lot more interactive such as Brian Cox’s app “Wonders of the Universe”, or children’s interactive stories.

    I appreciate that there are worries over piracy etc, however that comes with everything these days and is a mere hurdle in the progress we are making with ebooks.

    I know companies such as netflix are almost taking away the thrill out of buying a DVD etc, however I don’t think online book lending will harm the actual printed book itself. There are so many people who buy the books for the object itself like you mentioned in your post last year, and books are a thing people like to own. You also pointed out that after reading “The Midnight Circus”, one blogger went out and bought the physical copy; e-lending could prove quite beneficial in that sense.

    I think it e-lending is worth the investment, however there are a lot of things that need improving to make sure this is going to be a beneficial move.


  3. Jen @ Book Scribbles

    I used to be a print reader only, but since buying a Kindle Paperwhite, almost prefer to read there. I love the ease of only one device with the capacity to store many books and I ADORE the ability to look up words. I can also buy world language titles on Amazon that are hard to come by in the US.

    The one thing I do miss is the ability to flip around and find things. I have a sort of photographic memory when it comes to where my favorite quotes are on a page and with the Kindle it takes FOREVER to find quotes I like unless I highlight them (and then they are removed from the context of the story).


  4. Stefanie (ดอกแก้ว)

    I personally would love it if libraries in Thailand were to consider eBook lending. Due to certain bank restrictions, I can’t purchase eBooks online and it’s so expensive for me to buy an English book in print. Only new releases are in store, and orders for older books take an entire month for the store to import it. Digital borrowing would be great for me and my little cousins. We don’t have an actual library in our hometown, but we have Internet cafes. While piracy is a complicated issue, I would prefer to introduce my cousins to a digital library than indulge their Facebook addiction.


    • hls

      Have you tried bookdepository.com ? I use that. It has free worldwide shipping.


      • Stefanie (ดอกแก้ว)

        i would love to, but Thai banks have very complicated restrictions for credit cards or online shopping, particularly for foreigners. even when i have thai citizenship, i won’t be qualified because of low income. thank you for your suggestion, though.


  5. I just bought a nook for the reason above that I can’t read library books on my kindle. It was on Blackwell’s sale for £29. With the nook I only need to borrow three books rather than buy them to make it back – and before you get upset at authors missing out on their sale percentage; authors signed up to PLR make money every single time a book is loaned from a library [which is a tidy wee annual sum]. Win/win, I think


  6. I personally have a Kindle and have no problem “checking out” e-books from my library by sitting at my home computer. I think you bring up some valid points, but if I live in a small town and MY library is doing it, I think it will spread. Great article.


  7. Great post 🙂 I am a “printed book purist” I suppose, but I’m sure I will make the leap into eBooks eventually. I was quite shocked when I contacted the British Council in Tokyo last year to ask for their rates for library membership, and was told there wasn’t a library anymore. The British Council was a staple for my family when I was growing up.


  8. Even with all the hassles that go with ebook lending, I think libraries need to be at the table. Some people think that a library without paper books would be obsolete, but the truth is that a library that doesn’t have what the patrons want to borrow would be obsolete. Libraries also have significant buying power. If we were to sit out of the ebook market until it became more favourable, we wouldn’t have a seat at the table to advocate for better terms for digital lending.

    On a side note, are you sure you can’t get Kindle books? When I borrow from Overdrive, I have the option to choose between ePub and Kindle, but it’s possible that ability varies according to your library’s subscription.


    • Unfortunately, the eBooks in my library are still only available in EPUB format. Given that the Kindle is probably the most popular e-reader, it makes sense for Overdrive to expand this though so that’s good to hear!


    • PaperbackDiva

      I too, have been able to borrow any book through my library and Overdrive on my Kindle. They simply route me to the Amazon site where I can download the title for 2 weeks. I haven’t experienced any problems in about 6 months of use.


  9. This is a very interesting post! I had a conversation just recently about libraries lending out Ebooks. Apparently, in the Dutch libraries, the collection of Ebooks one can lend is still very limited. I believe this is because many large publisher don’t want to collaborate in this way with the libraries because they have all kinds of concerns. I’m a bit fuzzy on the details, but the whole Ebook – library thing does make for an interesting discussion.


  10. Let me start off by saying that take out ebooks from my library all the time. But my problem with them, is that they don’t take people into the library. If everyone goes to ebooks then the libraries will be empty of people. And people are sometimes what makes a library great and fosters a sense of community.


  11. Interesting discussion and I think you’re right to say there are still plenty of people out there who like the tangible books rather than e-books. Libraries are there for people to interact with other people, so it’s a social communion as well. I use my kindle to build up my own collection as well as having a house full of full bookshelves….


  12. I bet you are getting a lot of traction with this issue! I wasn’t aware of some of these problems with eBooks. I usually check out paper books from the library, but I have several friends who always go for eBooks. Tanya’s point that people don’t go to the library to pick up eBooks is sort of valid, but I hardly go to the library for my paper books. Usually what I do is reserve them online, have them sent from whichever branch they are at to my local branch, and go pick them up. I am in the library for about five minutes. This issue seems like a complex one, but I think one key part is that publishers need to think of a better way to deal with licensing.


  13. I much prefer friend books!


  14. Initially, it seems like ebooks would be a great investment for libraries, because I assumed they would only need to buy it once and then could continually have it available without the book wearing down or getting damaged. Plus, you could rent it out to a bunch of people at once. But it’s interesting that publishing companies are putting limits on those things to treat the ebook more like the physical book. I suppose they don’t want to lose money on the same product. When the publishing companies can figure out a less strict way of making these available to libraries, I think they’ll work out really well–and the people who still want paper books (myself included) can still borrow the physical versions.


  15. These are important and complex questions. I feel that libraries should definitely invest in e-books (and I have yet to get an e-reader). Though we will still need libraries for paper book and referencing, increasing numbers of readers in all age-groups are embracing the e-book. As you say, it is now urgent that some kind of universal format and system of lending is set up. I like the idea of a pay-per-lend model, though it would have to be very modestly priced. It will be all a hassle, but it would be crazy not to get on with it.


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