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Ebooks: the final chapter for libraries?

Posted on 7 Sep 2013 at 10:19

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

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.

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User comments

Final chapter

I don't think e-books will be the death of libraries. That would be the current government.

By cartmellbrowne on 7 Sep 2013

Could start by having some books...

The library in the city where I live could do with having some more actual books, never mind e-books. It isn't very large for the size of the city anyway, and a couple of years ago had a revamp and was rebranded 'explore' or some such drivel. As is usual with these right-on rebranding, it meand that they replaced a load of shelves with computers (why so many - most people have access to the internet at home or work) and a cafe (the area is already bursting with cafes anyway).

They do offer e-books, but not in Kindle format so useless to me.

I went in there for the first time in about a year recently, which reminded me why I don't bother. I don't expect to go back soon, despite reading a lot of books. I'm not sure who the libraries are supposed to cater for these days, but certainly not people who actually want books to read!

By valeofyork on 9 Sep 2013


It takes 2 minutes to convert any ebook to kindle format and it's as simple as emailing it to your email.

By radnor on 16 Sep 2013


The library ones have copy protection on them, so not doable legally.

They didn't have a very good selection anyway, so it wasn't worth putting much effort in!

By valeofyork on 17 Sep 2013

I understand that we live in the 21st century and trust me I am constantly sing all of those modern devices, but I think it is wrong for kids to be brought up on devices. They will have a chance to use digital things, so why not let them be kids, why making things for them so much easier. I understand that backpacks get heavy from time to time, but it is way better to study using books! When reading or learning from books people get to study a complex of information, such as writing and punctuation for instance. With digital devices, they do not pay that much attention to it! I am fine with progress, but this is too much. This way we won’t have educated nation. We will have people not capable to write a name without a mistake. And by write a name (check this link to find out more about professional writing: I do not mean typing at all!

By AmberA on 24 Sep 2013

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