Ebooks: The Final Chapter for Libraries?.
The Library NEWS || Will ebooks kill public libraries or give them a new lease of life? Nicole Kobie explores the delicate politics of lending electronic books.
Click a link and gain access to a million ebooks for free. It isn’t piracy, and it isn’t a new Amazon Kindle service: it’s your local library.
Many of us imagine shelves full of yellowing books when we think of libraries, but ebook lending could change all that – and persuade many people to sign up for a library card for the first time.
Yet while ebook lending has the potential to deliver a much-needed boost to public libraries, publishers remain reluctant to make their titles available for free. Forcing borrowers to physically visit a library to download books and only allowing one reader to borrow a title at a time are two of the analogue-world restrictions publishers are keen to apply to digital book-lending.
While libraries slowly accede to such demands, private services are popping up offering paid-for competition. So, will ebooks spell the end for public libraries, or help revitalise them for the future?
Ebook lending schemes
It may surprise you to learn that the majority of public libraries in the UK already offer an ebook programme. According to Nick Stopforth, head of digital at the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL), between 75% and 80% of public libraries offer ebook lending – although the availability of popular titles is another matter.
“It’s quite fragmented in terms of what content you can actually get,” says Stopforth. “Not all publishers release their content to libraries. So, it’s not so much about whether libraries have an ebooks offer, since most do – it’s the quality and range of stock that’s available that’s the challenge.”
The most popular system for offering ebooks is OverDrive, which covers about half of the public libraries in the UK, according to the company’s director of marketing, David Burleigh.
OverDrive offers a central catalogue of a million books, videos and audio books, and each library can choose what to offer to users. On top of working with publishers, OverDrive pulls in out-of-copyright books from Project Gutenberg to offer for free.
OverDrive has two lending models. The first allows only one person to borrow a book at a time, while the second allows simultaneous use for an unlimited number of readers over a set period, which not all publishers are willing to offer.
“We continue to advocate on behalf of libraries for the broadest access, most liberal terms and broadest compatibility, since DRM affects the compatibility of different systems,” says Burleigh.
Conflicting formats have already caused problems for UK readers. OverDrive offers apps that work on every major platform, from iOS and Android to Nook and Windows 8, and users in the US can access the library’s ebooks via a Kindle ebook reader.
UK readers aren’t so fortunate: OverDrive doesn’t work on Kindles, because it’s only available in the EPUB format over here, which isn’t supported on Kindle readers. There’s no obvious reason why it’s supported across the Atlantic and not here, but it leaves British library users unable to access books on the most popular reading hardware.
Ebooks have also been steadily making their way into universities, says Andrew Walsh, a librarian at the University of Huddersfield who runs a blog on innovation in libraries.
“Journal articles have been online for a long time – ebooks are a bit behind that,” he says. “But over the past few years, we’ve made massive numbers of ebooks available.” Walsh says universities simply buy a digital version alongside the print edition, if it’s available, and there’s a wider range of ebook providers for universities than there is for public institutions.
“When you walk into a library and see the books on the shelves, that’s only the tip of the iceberg,” he adds. “There are vast domains of technology and electronic resources sitting underneath that, particularly with university libraries. We spend more money on online resources than print – way more.”
Back in the world of mainstream publishing, publishers are naturally wary of creating an ebook free-for-all in public libraries. After all, if readers can simply log into a library website and have instant access to a million books, there’s almost no incentive to buy from Amazon or anywhere else.
To address these concerns, the government released an “independent” review of ebooks and libraries in March, led by publisher William Sieghart.
It made five recommendations: ebooks should be free; they should be accessible remotely; authors should be compensated in the same way as they are with physical books; only one reader should be able to access a book at a time; and books should be deemed to “deteriorate”, to force people to repurchase them over time.
“Their printed counterparts naturally deteriorate, forcing popular books to be repurchased,” the review states. “This principle, therefore, should be applied to digital books; otherwise, publishers would be unfairly discriminated against.”
The latter two recommendations cancel out two of the core benefits of ebooks – that they can be lent out en masse, and don’t need to be replaced. However, the SCL’s Stopforth says publishers want even more “friction” to protect their revenue streams.
“From the publishers’ perspective, there was a keenness to see that content would be made available only in a library venue,” he says of the review. “Our argument is that, to make a really good offer to the public, it had to be remote. Having to go to the library to read ebooks is counter-intuitive to the model, and people aren’t going to use it.”
That said, Stopforth says he “absolutely understands where publishers are coming from” with their requests for friction to protect revenue models.
“We will build in friction, but it’s a matter of how far you go,” he says. “The model could be about making some content available only after a certain period of time, or only to a number of people at a certain time.”
Huddersfield’s Walsh says publishers’ “fear” of losing revenue is holding back libraries. “Libraries do want to provide [ebooks], but we’re limited to what the publishers allow us to do,” he says. Indeed, the publishers’ demands could do most damage to the more vulnerable members of society.
As the Sieghart review notes, ebooks present an opportunity to revolutionise reading for people with sight problems, and to give better access to those with limited mobility.
“Innovative library services are loading up [ebook readers] for the elderly or housebound,” the review says, “who as a demographic are some of the most regular library users, but who increasingly face challenges in accessing traditional lending models”.
Spotify for books
While public libraries wrestle with publishers’ demands, there have been limited attempts to set up private, commercial lending libraries – Spotify equivalents for books, if you like.
Amazon’s Kindle Owners’ Lending Library lets subscribers to its £49-per-year Amazon Prime delivery service borrow one free book a month from the 200,000 volume collection, although it contains few recent bestsellers.
Other services have yet to make much of a mark. Afictionado launched in 2011, promising ebook loans at a set subscription rate, but its website has since been pulled down and we couldn’t reach anyone at the company.
The attraction of public libraries is that they’re freely available and the content is chosen by trained staff who have the public in mind.
Eskoobe is a similar “streaming” book service, but so far it’s only launched in Germany. There’s also Read Petite, backed by Tim Waterstone, the founder of the eponymous bookstore chain, whose subscriptions are limited to short stories and articles, while F+W Media offers ebook subscriptions for specific topics, such as art or romance novels.
Even if paid-for libraries are a success, they won’t trouble public ones, argues Stopforth.
“The attraction of public libraries is that they’re freely available and the content is chosen by trained staff who have the public in mind,” he says. “A business operation will be different – it will come from commercial concerns and operate differently. I can’t see a business model that would threaten the public model.”
Future of libraries
Even if the model of public book-lending isn’t under threat, what about the physical library buildings? If we can borrow books online without making the trek to the local library, will they cease to exist?
Libraries are already suffering budget cuts and closures, and a shift to digital lending could further erode the business case for maintaining a possibly lucrative plot of land in the town centre.
Stopforth says there’s a case for having a nationwide ebook lending library, which people could access online without having to visit their local library.
“It hasn’t happened previously because of each library’s local requirements to tailor a service to the population,” he says. “A digital service kind of bypasses that… that’s part of a vision for a longer term. I can see there would be a will for that, but then it’s about getting the infrastructure in place.”
The Sieghart review concluded that libraries will be under even greater threat if they don’t shift to digital.
“Whatever analysis you make about the impact of remote digital borrowing on the physical footfall in libraries, it’s plain that an inability to offer digital lending will make libraries increasingly irrelevant in a relatively short time,” the report says. “Library services, therefore, do not have the luxury of waiting any longer to expand, or in many cases start, their provision of digital lending, and to link it to a broader digital strategy that meets the increasingly advanced technological expectations of many library members.”
It’s plain that an inability to offer digital lending will make libraries increasingly irrelevant in a relatively short time
Indeed, OverDrive’s Burleigh suggests that many libraries have seen membership increase after starting to offer ebooks, and that digital services help extend their reach to more people in the local community.
Plus, as he and others note, there’s more to libraries than borrowing the latest Dan Brown novel.
“We believe libraries are a core part of the community, and continue to be – they play a very important community centre role,” says Burleigh, noting that they offer internet access, career development and other resources.
“The value they provide, and that librarians provide, is usually underrated and underestimated… I don’t see that changing. We certainly don’t see [OverDrive] as a service that would replace the library – it supplements them and enables the library to reach more and newer parts of their communities.”
Aside from offering ebooks, libraries are updating what they loan out, and the services they offer, to attract more visitors. Some libraries now offer PlayStation 3 and Wii game loans to draw younger visitors, and some are also becoming tech support centres.
The DOK concept library in the Netherlands features an Apple-style “genius bar” where users can bring their own devices to get help. They can also try out different tablets and ebook readers. Stopforth predicted such devices will start to be lent out soon, too.
That support goes further. Walsh says a key part of a librarian’s job is teaching people how to better use information technology, and make sense of what they find.
“There’s so much out there, it’s so confusing for people,” he says. “When I did my undergraduate degree 20 years ago, there was a lack of information, and you sort of made do with whatever books were in front of you and that was it. Now, it’s: ‘Oh my god, there’s so much, what do I do with it all?’”
“People think they’re experts at searching information because they can use Google to book plane tickets, or they think they’re an expert at using an iPad because they can play Angry Birds on it,” he adds. “But they can’t necessarily use it for serious educational purposes, so we help them with the pedagogy, the learning of things.”
That includes how to properly use Google, he says, and how to use an iPad to manage notes.
However, the technology in many public libraries is in desperate need of an update, according to Stopforth. “In the early 2000s, we had the rollout of the ‘People’s Network’, which was a fantastic vision – to give every library in the country some element of computer access,” he says.
“But now those computers have been in place for a decade and they’re tired. It’s also not necessarily what the public are using now, and I’m really concerned about a gap between those people who can afford the latest Apple device, for example, or the latest Android device, and those people who aren’t even on the internet yet. We need a refresh of the People’s Network.”
However, as Walsh notes, people will always have more recent technology in their pockets than libraries can offer, meaning technology alone isn’t enough to keep libraries relevant. Walsh’s library has taken another tactic: making it fun using gamification.
“When people come into the library, borrow or return books, or access our electronic resources, they get points and badges, and can see how they’re doing on the leaderboard,” he explains. “Libraries tend not to be fun – you go there if you have to. Part of this is to bring in an element of play, and hopefully that will make it less scary and mean some people who might have been reluctant to use library services will be more likely to in future.”
Author: Nicole Kobie
source || pcpro.co.uk