Ebooks: the final chapter for libraries?

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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