Ebooks: the final chapter for libraries?

“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.”

Creating friction

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.

Scanning in libraries

Find out how libraries have started to digitise their collections

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.

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