Could downloaded e-books be the saviour of libraries?
Over the last few years several libraries around the UK have either transferred to volunteer control or closed completely – and more closures are planned in the near future. But while this has prompted widespread outrage from the public – and much discussion in the national media – something else has been happening which could have an equally major impact on libraries and their long-term future.
Many libraries around the UK have recently launched their own e-lending services. This morning I visited one of them, Holborn Library in Camden, where readers can now download e-books from their account on the council’s website directly onto their e-reading device – without even having to visit the physical library premises. Once the loan period of a maximum of three weeks has expired, the book simply disappears from the e-reader.
I spoke to Janene Cox, President of the Society of Chief Librarians. “Librarians on the whole are very positive about e-lending,” she told me, “and I think the reasons for that is that they recognise that if libraries are to remain relevant and accessible in a digital age then we have to provide our services in a way that people want to make use of them. So e-books provide us with an opportunity for our books to be 24/7 and for people to access them remotely and for people to download them to their own digital device.”
But e-book lending around the country is patchy and there’s no comprehensive service. So tomorrow, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport will announce a review into the best way to make e-books available to all library users.
The Minister for Libraries, Ed Vaizey, told me: “We’ve seen that sales of digital books have increased massively in the UK; they now represent something like 10 per cent of all books sales. Amazon says it’s selling more digital books than it’s selling physical books. So in order for libraries to keep pace and remain relevant to people they should be able to lend books electronically.”
But there are major concerns that the e-books lent by libraries could be copied illegally and prompt a rise in piracy. And several key figures in the publishing industry are worried that e-lending could seriously damage book sales. Many of us like owning and collecting the physical books we read but this isn’t true for e-books. Put simply, if we can borrow e-books for free, then why would we ever buy them?
I spoke to Richard Mollet, CEO of the Publishers Association. He told me: “Publishers work very closely with libraries and have done for decades. I think the nub of the problem with e-lending is that we have to be sure publishers can have a sustainable business model because when it is as easy to buy a book as to click a button and borrow one, a lot more people are going to take the borrowing option and that has serious implications for authors and their royalties, for booksellers and as well for publishers.”
And several authors have already expressed strong opinions on the subject – and on one aspect of it in particular.
Under the public lending right scheme, authors get paid 6.05p each time one of their physical books is borrowed from a public library. But despite the recommendations of the Digital Economy Act 2010, as it stands e-books are still exempt from the scheme.
I spoke to SJ Parris, bestselling author of the Giordano Bruno trilogy of historical novels, Heresy, Prophecy and Sacrilege. She told me: “I think it seems self-evident that e-books should be treated in exactly the same way as hardbacks and paperbacks; they’re just another format for the same content and the same amount of work has gone into it. And for a lot of authors that income that comes through PLR is vital to them, it’s not a little extra, it’s a vital part of their income. And I don’t think e-books should be able to undermine that.”
Parris also commented on a recent shift in people’s attitudes towards the way they consume their entertainment. “I think collectively we’ve almost unquestioningly accepted that it’s the norm to be able to access our entertainment, whether that be books or films or music or even the news, that we should be able to get hold of that for free at the click of a touchscreen. And I think those of us who create the content, creative artists and the people that represent us, we do need to be vocal about this and we need to keep reminding people that at a certain point somebody’s labour and time and creative work went into making that film or that song or the novel that people are enjoying.”
Like many authors, Parris is also concerned about the impact of e-lending on the kind of readers libraries were set up to serve – those who might not be able to afford to buy physical books or indeed an e-reader. And the DCMS has already come under fire from readers around the country for failing to prevent local councils from closing libraries.
I asked Ed Vaizey whether a nationwide e-lending service would leave more libraries vulnerable to closure. “Well, we’ve specifically asked the review to take into account the impact of e-lending on library premises,” he told me. “Clearly there’s a debate about library closures, some libraries have closed but of course people who put library closures at the forefront fail to mention that actually lots of libraries are also opening. Next year, for example, Birmingham is going to open the biggest library in Europe. The death of the library has been hugely exaggerated and we still have a massively thriving public library service.”
Insisting on a visit to the library to download an e-book might be one way of protecting libraries from closure in an increasingly digital future. But there’s another threat – from online retailer Amazon, who make the best-selling e-reading device, the Kindle. Amazon currently refuses to license Kindle technology to libraries, prompting fears it could launch its own nationwide e-lending service, which could perhaps further undermine both the publishing industry and the local library – whatever the outcome of the government’s review on e-lending.
Source: blogs.channel4.com By: Matthew Cain Sept 25, 2012
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