Perhaps for as long as ebooks have been available, there has been some debate about their relationship with libraries. Should libraries offer them? Should they charge for access? What about the impact on publishers and authors? Will access in libraries damage publishers and authors? Or will they benefit from increased sales? These and many other questions have been central to the ongoing debate. As usual, however, publishers are leading the debate and librarians are largely on the sidelines (at least as far as policy makers are concerned).
However, with the launch of the ebook lending review by the Department for Culture, Media and Sports, there is an opportunity for librarians and others to argue the case for ebooks in libraries and engage with the wider of issues of how the service should be delivered. The review will be considering:
1. The benefits of e-lending.
2. The current level and nature of demand for e-lending in English libraries, along with a projection of future demand. For example, will e-lending be in addition to traditional borrowing of print books, or is it likely to transform the way in which library users access services? What is the demand for downloading e-books remotely, that is, away from library premises? To what extent do owners of e-readers value public e-lending above what is freely or commercially available elsewhere?
3. Current supply models, barriers to the supply of e-books to libraries, and likely future trends.
4. Systems for remunerating authors / publishers for e-lending.
5. The impact of e-lending on publishers and their business models.
6. Any unforeseen consequences of e-lending. For example, the impact on those who cannot keep up with technology, the likely long-term impact on the model of highly localised physical library premises, skills requirements for librarians, etc.
There is plenty for the panel to consider. For example, the fact that publishers have been largely hostile to libraries offering ebooks for free, that the lending of ebooks through Amazon’s Lending Library has not had a negative impact on sales, that 50% of library users report purchasing a book by an author they discovered in their local library and the fact that “a majority of print readers (54%) and readers of e-books (61%) prefer to purchase their own copies of these books” (not to mention the social benefits for the housebound and the visually impaired).
With an issue such the availability and delivery of ebooks via public libraries, it is vital that librarians are central to and engaged with the discussion. It would be crazy to allow publishers and other interested parties to drive forward policy in this area. Librarians should be engaged and at the forefront not just because it is a service offered by libraries, but also because we understand the benefits this service brings to library users and because we understand the broader issues.
It is for these reasons that I am in the process of putting together a submission for the review arguing the case for ebooks in public libraries. Because I believe that publishers are living in the past and using ill-informed scare tactics to defend their business models. Because I believe that ebooks are just another format for delivery the printed word and should, therefore, be available through public libraries under the same conditions as printed books. Because I understand that borrowing ebooks will no more stop people buying ebooks than the availability of print books in public libraries stopped people buying print books. And because I am aware that the availability of ebooks encourages inclusivity and can help breakdown existing social barriers. For all of these reasons and more, I am arguing that there is, and must be, a future for ebooks in libraries.
If you would like to submit evidence to the review, please submit your evidence before 5pm on Tuesday 6th November.