Should libraries have ebooks? I’m not sure they should.

The NZ$100 million upgrade to New Zealand’s National Library building has prompted debate about whether it’s money well spent. The latest contribution to this debate from the New Zealand Herald’s Brian Rudman suggests that the money would be better spent digitising the library’s collection so it’s available to everyone, not just tourists and residents of Wellington.

This raises an important question for the book industry. Should libraries be able to lend ebooks? Right now, the libraries are focusing on digitising out-of-copyright works or material that falls outside of copyright such as historical documents. This sort of material, 50 or more years old, is mainly of interest to researchers. The general public’s idea of a library is more closely associated with borrowing commercially-available, new and recent books. This is no doubt what Rudman had mostly in mind with his suggestion.

There are several problems with letting libraries lend ebooks, but there are also opportunities that could be a big help to our emerging digital publishing industry. It’s worth looking at both sides. First, some of the potential problems.

If a library buys an ebook, how many times can it lend this ebook and under what terms? With a paper book, there is no limit to the number of times a single copy of a book can be loaned. The main constraint currently is the physical availability of the book — if another borrower has it, you can’t get it until it’s returned.

Notwithstanding the recent passing of the Public Lending Right for New Zealand Authors Act 2008 to partially compensate New Zealand authors, the library can continue to lend that single copy without any further payment for the book to the publisher, international authors, or other rights holders.

If the paper book is replaced by an ebook and that ebook is just a click away — no need to drive to the local library to borrow and return the book — it’s probable that borrowing from libraries will see a surge in popularity, especially if it’s free or a nominal fee. Terrific for literacy, educational improvement and many of the cultural benefits that accrue from books. But how can this be reconciled with the need for a commercial industry of publishers, booksellers and others who will have much more to fear from libraries when technology brings the local library to every home and mobile phone.

So, given the potential problems, let’s look at some possible solutions.

The National Library of New Zealand, Wellington

The National Library of New Zealand, Wellington

One solution is simply to keep ebooks out of libraries, other than for archival purposes. This is an option that the industry should give serious consideration to. After all, in this digital age, is there really any public good justification for making vast numbers of books available free, in an instant, especially when it has the perverse consequence of undermining the viability of the book industry (and other media such as magazines and perhaps newspapers if libraries go down this path)?

If there are sectors of society that, say for financial reasons, could not buy books, it would make more sense for the taxpayer and ratepayer to subsidise their book purchases than to pay for an expensive library system whose main purpose is to give the books away. Publishers, authors and booksellers would be better off, and so arguably would the public, including those most disadvantaged.

Another option is to severely restrict the terms under which ebooks are supplied to libraries to minimise the harm that can be caused. Examples would be to restrict concurrent loans, limit the number of times a book can be loaned out, and specify devices it can be read with and/or places it can be read. This is one area where DRM could be justified since it’s not just preventing copying, but enforcing a range of terms. Of course, it might seem odd or even pointless that you’d still have have to drive to a library to read an ebook.

On the payment front, instead of a one-time purchase at standard (usually discounted) retail rates, publishers could be reimbursed on a per loan basis, or via a much higher initial purchase price. If this happened sooner rather than later, libraries could, in fact, play a big role in developing the digital reading habit and financing a large part of the commercial sector’s early digitisation needs.

But if terms imposed on libraries were too lax — for instance by allowing a low cost or a large number of times that libraries could lend a book — then commercial booksellers would be undermined, an undesirable consequence regardless of whether or not publishers and authors are fairly compensated. The library sector, as a heavily subsidised competitor, may need competition regulations placed on it.

So, measures such as these could work to reduce the potential harm digital library lending could cause. But would this be reason enough to allow libraries to perform a similar role in the digital world that they perform today with paper? If they have to be so severely restricted, shouldn’t we just drop them completely? There will be plenty of commercial options to fill the gap.

My own feeling is that the lending library, except for specialist research and archival libraries, probably has no place in the emerging digital world. What public benefit would arise from maintaining an expensive digital library system when access to New Zealand’s, and the world’s, books and knowledge is so ubiquitous? Keep the specialised research and archival functions, the role of major libraries since the great Library of Alexandria. But that should be its sole digital function.

Comments (18)

  1. Noya

    Great work.

  2. Keith Mockett

    Another interesting perspective on the eBook (r)evolution. Wellington City Library currently makes some audio books available via the Overdrive system. So you get it for 2 weeks, it has a timer in the Overdrive system, and they can only lend so many at any one time. That might be a solution for eBooks – perhaps a good use of DRM.

    Personally I would like to see a solution that makes eBooks available because I happen to believe that libraries are important in dispersing a variety of opinions, views, and experiences to those who could not afford to buy that many books. And it is a great and safe way to discover new authors. Which one may then buy the books.

  3. Matthew Oliver

    An interesting post Martin. Like Keith I’d like to see some kind of solution as I strongly believe there’s still a public good in making books available at low or no cost. Maybe libraries need to be investing in systems that restrict concurrent readers, enforce time limits on the loan, and charge a nominal fee that they can share with publishers?

  4. Michael Parry

    The horse has bolted on this one, as many libraries already have large e-book collections, especially academic libraries. And they use a wide range of devices to control access, including limited number of users and limtied borrowing time.

    Also libraries are often purchasing from publishers on a subscription model that equates to a higher cost per book.

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  6. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    You’re quite right that libraries and institutions are already users, and lenders, of digital publications. But I think publishers, authors and the wider public need to review this as the improving digital reading experience and wider access potentially open the floodgates. Current digital access methods, notably the PC and often specifically-located PCs, present a barrier to widespread access so only the hardy few, such as researchers or students, would use the medium. When Joe Public will consider reading a novel digitally, we’ll have a different environment calling for different business models.

  7. Allison Dobbie

    I am the manager of a large public library. I think you might be missing the point here. Libraries subscribe to and pay for e-books. They come from the supplier with conditions, which the supplier has negotiated with the publisher. The fee includes royalties. E-books open up the world of reading for many people, especially those who require large print or who prefer to listen to a story rather than reading the physical copy because of poor eyesight or frailty. As those buying ebook readers will discover, many e-books are not yet licenced for this part of the world and we are unable to provide access to them. The rights and profits around ebooks are all in place, and libraries do what they can to provide equitable access for customers.
    Most if not all of the digitisation that NZ libraries are doing is of unique material in their collections, much of it unpublished such as letters, archives and photographs. The point is to improve access as well as addressing preservation. Writers use this material to create the works that give publishers their income.

    In the same way that libraries have housed at public cost the hard copy back catalogue of published works so quickly out of print, to ensure public access, so libraries will store and preserve at immense public cost, the digitised memory to ensure that it too remains available for the future. This need to store and preserve the NZ digital memory is a key National Library responsibility which is being addressed as part of the requirements for their new building.

    To deny libraries the right to lend e-books is to deny equity of access to the future world of information and reading. Publishers on their own cannot meet this need.

  8. Michael Parry

    As an after thought.

    Your argument seems to be very similar to the old argument vis-à-vis libraries holding print copies of books for sale. As [public] libraries became common and popular, the retail outlets and publishers were concerned that increased access to free works would push down their potential sales. If anything the reverse was true, and libraries became the principal purchasers of expensive works, which increased their print run size. I don’t see why the electronic environment will necessarily be different.

  9. Paul Reynolds

    ‘Tis hard to know where to start on this one – other than reminding people of the old joke about the Professor of Logic’s response to the sight of two people hanging out the window on either side of the High Street in Edinburgh – shaking their fists and shouting the odds at each other ..

    Looking up at the kerfuffle he turned to his companion and said – ‘you know – those two will never agree – they are arguing from different premises’

    I know -very Basil Brush – but hey – what else can I say, apart from responding to one of Martin’s questions ” in this digital age, is there really any public good justification for making vast numbers of books available free ..”

    As Alison Dobbie of ACL has already pointed out the free word just isn’t helpful or accurate.

    Libraries pay for their stock, and then lend them out to their customer/membership base.

    The latter are based on geographic local authorities – i.e. the library is a community service bought and paid for by the community rate.

    How e-books can be distributed within terms that compensate the author and their agents can be managed – it just needs us to think up methods which are equitable to all sides.

    For sure this might involve some kind of DRM rights – however, I’m not seeing the current methods [ Overdrive for example] as anywhere near offering a satisfactory experience for author – reader or agent or library.

    But we can still figure this out.

    However, to do that we need to take a step back and acknowledge the public library os a key resource for learning – education – community development, and preserving our local and national heritage.

    It’s a living breathing institution with almost 200 years of personal and community empowerment. It’s not a shop – it’s a key institution of civil society which has always paid its dues.

  10. Larry Henry

    Allison seeing that you are in the front line of this, I give a lot of credence to your views. How would I as a writer be reimbursed for my efforts on an ongoing basis ; should it be more if my works are digitized making them readily available worldwide ? Of course my desire would be for ongoing remuneration to enjoy both fame and fortune. However, being slightly artistic I would prefer fame and remembrance.

    Larry Henry

  11. Bob Gibson

    A provocative subject, clearly.

    As an ebook supplier to libraries (and a licensee of the ebrary platform,) here’s how we address the issue. (After much consultation with both publishers and libraries.)

    First, we disallow access outside the IP range of the institution. This is standard practice in the online ebook world.

    But we do permit our library customers to use the ebook as a source for copying or printing for interlibrary loan purposes (subject to Copyright Act restrictions.) Electronic copying doesn’t work well in the ebrary system, which allows only ascii copying, so the only practical answer for the library is printing and sending through the ILL system.

    Granted, it’s not perfect, but both publishers and libraries seem to accept this.

    And I admit that it does pose problems in the National Library setting, where everyone’s a cardholder. But in Canada, I believe the National Library ILL policy is restricted to walkins, so we could sell an ebook to our National Library (Library and Archives Canada) without a worry on the ILL front.

    Of course the mechanics are all in place in the ebrary system as well as other online library suppliers for micropayments. And that’s the real answer. Just as libraries now charge users for photocopying, why shoudn’t they charge them a per-page fee for ebook ILL?

    But until the knee-jerk reaction in library circles against charges like this disappears, ebook suppliers and publishers aren’t going to offer the option.

  12. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    Like you, I think any viable solution will have to involve user charges. This will be unpopular with many people, both within the library system and among the general public. But the consequences of not using an effective charging model will be even worse – either free/cheap with a really lousy service that customers hate. Or free/cheap with a terrific service that undermines commercial competition and, as a consequence, the publishers and authors who need a vibrant marketplace to sell into.

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  14. Nann

    “My own feeling is that the lending library, except for specialist research and archival libraries, probably has no place in the emerging digital world.”

    What an elitist assumption about the ways that people use libraries! Why do you want to deprive the thousands of preschoolers who are introduced to stories and the wonders to be found in books–at their libraries? What about those people (adults and children) of modest means who love to read but could not possibly afford to purchase, or store, all the books that they want to read?

  15. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    None of us wants to deprive disadvantaged people of the opportunity to read books. Quite the opposite. But I’m arguing that, in the process of solving this problem, we shouldn’t create an even bigger one by undermining the publishing industry that creates books. In a scenario such as the one you cite, I’d rather see the poor subsidised than a system where everyone, rich or poor, can get free ebooks, greatly distorting the wider market.

    Chances are that the disadvantaged will also have limited, or no, access to the internet and suitable reading devices so there’s a wider information access problem to solve. If you’re prepared to subsidise information access for targeted groups, you can also subsidise the information itself at a commercial rate (including the cost of ebooks). I have no problem with this approach since it doesn’t require that everyone, rich or poor, be provided with free, or almost free, access to books to the detriment of the publishers, authors and wider industry.

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  17. Dean Letfus

    Knowledge should be available to all but it would be nice to stick with the books for as long as possible as they have a certain way about them. One Day when Apple iPads are all around us then it may be a different story but until then lets keep the books.

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