Thursday, 14 April 2011
More and more UK libraries to offer eBooks
It was part of a trend that local authorities responsible public libraries can no longer ignore: a growing number of people are asking if they can borrow books in a digital format, and an increasing number of councils are now offering an e-books lending service.
Phil Bradley, vice president of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (Cilip), says that about a quarter of councils now offer a service, which provides several advantages over traditional book lending: "It's a 24/7 service; you don't have to physically look after the books; you're able to get books to people who can't get to the library, such as shift workers and those who live in rural areas; the readers can choose the size of the font, which helps the visually impaired; it's flexible and it helps to outreach library service."
There are downsides, such as reducing the footfall in libraries and undermining the figures on their usage – a significant factor as spending cuts lead to demands for clear evidence of the value of a service – and not everybody has internet connectivity or can afford an e-reader. In addition, the formats in which e-books are published and the devices are not always compatible: the obvious example is the Amazon Kindle, which only takes e-books available in that format from the online retailer. But despite this, and the fact that there is no specific technical specification, most books are compatible with the other popular devices – the Sony Reader, Apple iPad and various smartphones.
Bradley says that so far e-books are not offering any financial benefits to public authorities, and that there is a lot of uncertainty over which commercial model will work in the long term. A handful of companies have emerged as the major suppliers – including OverDrive, ebrary and Public Library Online – and the common method is that the library pays a licence to lend out an e-book as many times as it wishes. They use digital rights management technology to ensure it can only be downloaded to one device and remains unavailable until the expiry period, when the book is scrambled.
But not all publishers and authors are satisfied with this. In the US, HarperCollins has told e-book distributors that it plans to limit the number of downloads on a licence to 26, a move which is causing considerable anxiety for some librarians. Bradley has some sympathy for publishers on the issue, given that most paper books have to be replaced if heavily used (26 is the estimated average number of times a book is borrowed before it falls apart), and that they will ultimately lose out from an indefinite number loans. But he is also mindful of the financial pressure on library services, and suggestions from some suppliers in favour of moving to a payment per download model.
"A major concern is that it's still a growing market and nobody knows how it will pan out," he says. "We're still trying to inch ahead in the dark, but it's important that libraries work with publishers, suppliers and others to provide a service that can work for everybody."
Lincolnshire county council has recently entered the field in opening a virtual library http://virtuallibrary.lincolnshire.gov.uk , hosted by Askews Library Services, as part of a six month pilot beginning in mid February. Gary Nugent, the council's collections team leader, says the move came in response to people asking about a service for two years, and it chose to deal with the company as it was its existing supplier for hard copy books.
The council now has more than 1,000 e-books in the catalogue, and while Nugent acknowledges that there are some in demand that are not yet available through the service, more are being added each month.
Users have to visit a Lincolnshire library to obtain a borrower card – a measure designed to prevent use by people from overseas – and obtain access through a PIN number to download up to three books at a time. They are valid for 21 days, after which they are scrambled to become unreadable and have to be renewed. They can be read on any device using Adobe Digital Editions, although this does not include Amazon's Kindle.
"The proportion of borrowers using it is very low at the moment and comes from the traditional library base, but the take-up of e-books is growing and we will reckon it will grow quickly," Nugent says. "People who buy books are starting to download, and we think it will get some more users from among people who haven't used libraries."
He says there are also advantages for the council, in that it can obtain a book almost immediately from the supplier's website, and that unlike the hard copies they are not subject to wear and tear. It buys a licence for each book, and decisions on how many copies it takes are subject to estimates on short term demand.
The commercial model is being reviewed during the pilot, and Nugent says there is a possibility of paying per download, with a percentage going to Askews and a percentage to the book's publisher. He also says it may be necessary in future to charge a small fee to the borrower for each download.
Looking forward, he says: "We hope to have a totally integrated e-book site with our main web catalogue for the libraries. We're not sure when we can get it in place, but we will begin to look at it in the next couple of months."
It reflects a trend that Bradley believes will continue to gather steam. "The take-up of this kind of product is much more popular because people are becoming more aware of it," he says. "There is a lot of growth in the sector and I expect it to continue."
The commercial issues need to be resolved, but it suggests that in future more of those people on the bus and train will be reading e-books that have been borrowed rather than bought.