Publishers slowly warm to library e-lending

Libraries make the case for digital lending at the O'Reilly Tools of Change conference

Can libraries continue their role as lenders when books are in digital form? While library executives are set on the idea, at least some book publishers seem to still be wary of having libraries circulate electronic copies of their books to multiple parties, even with controls in place.

As sales figures of electronic books and periodicals start to approach those of their print counterparts, the question arises: should libraries lend electronic books out for the Amazon Kindle, the Apple iPad and Barnes & Noble's Nook? Digital books are overwhelmingly easy to purchase -- the reader need not leave the comfort of an armchair to do so. So does the world still need libraries?

That question was answered with resounding affirmation during a panel discussion on the subject at the O'Reilly Tools of Change conference for book publishers, held last week in New York.

"Libraries are not solely the buildings. It is the people inside who give them meaning. Libraries are discovery centers," said Katie Dunneback, a consultant for Iowa's East Central Library Services. She noted that librarians understand what their users are looking for and can suggest new titles, regardless of whether the titles are in physical or electronic form.

Library Journal surveyed 1,000 public libraries late last year and found that 71 percent now offer electronic books. Dunneback noted that libraries in Iowa, for instance, have spent about $US1.1 million on digital books, which is a significant amount compared to $9.7 million it spends for print books.

Many publishers have grown used to the idea of e-lending, though a few, particularly McMillan, are reluctant to sell digital copies to libraries, the panel noted, perhaps fearing that library e-lending will dampen sales.

To mimic physical book lending practices in the electronic realm, most libraries use distribution services, such as OverDrive. Such services limit libraries to lending out one copy of an electronic book at a time, and deletes the borrower's copy of the book on the due date.

Thus far, OverDrive manages more than 500,000 digital titles from 1,000 publishers. While a substantial number, it remains a small sampling of the estimated 500,000 books published each year in the U.S.

Publishers still need to "expand the number of books they have in the Overdrive catalogue," urged Heather McCormack, the book review editor for Library Journal.

Besides the scarcity of titles, libraries face a number of other obstacles in electronic lending. Dunneback noted it takes a borrower about 21 steps to move a copy of an electronic book from the library's server to an e-reader. "I recognize the importance of digital rights management, but right now the technology behind it is a roadblock to the reading experience," Dunneback said.

Another issue is in the area of interlibrary loans, which pretty much is not an option when it comes to digital lending, Dunneback said. "Academic libraries have been struggling with this, due to academic journals," she said. A lot of journals are available only in electronic form and many of their publishers prohibit intercollege lending in their licensing agreements.

Publishers shouldn't see library lending as draining sales, but actually helping spur them on, Dunneback argued. Libraries give patrons the chance to try new books at little risk. "If they have success at a low investment, they might invest at a higher investment," Dunneback said. She also notes that a library can lend out only the number of copies of an electronic book that it has purchased, so there will still be waiting lines for popular titles. The most impatient patrons may give up waiting and buy their copies instead.

At least one publisher, Random House, seems to be embracing the idea of e-lending. Libraries "create readers. They create buzz for our books," said Ruth Liebmann, vice president and director of account marketing at Random House.

"Our goal is to have books available in libraries in the same time and in the same formats as they are available in retail," Liebmann said. "We don't see a library as competing with a sale. We see the library book as a sale."

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is