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>Good luck with that

>I’m not sure just how sustainable e-lending e-books is going to be for public libraries. Three points made in yesterday’s Times article about the practice moved my eyebrows higher and higher until they were indistinguishable from my hair:

“’People still think of libraries as old dusty books on shelves, and it’s a perception we’re always trying to fight,’ said Michael Colford, director of information technology at the Boston Public Library. ‘If we don’t provide this material for them, they are just going to stop using the library altogether.’”

Okay, so people don’t care about books in libraries, but if we can give them something they don’t even need to leave their bedrooms to obtain, that’s going to keep the lights on?

“. . . with few exceptions, e-books in libraries cannot be read on Amazon’s Kindle, the best-selling electronic reader, or on Apple’s iPhone, which has rapidly become a popular device for reading e-books. Most library editions are compatible with the Sony Reader, computers and a handful of other mobile devices.”

Who wants to read a novel on a computer?

“Most digital books in libraries are treated like printed ones: only one borrower can check out an e-book at a time, and for popular titles, patrons must wait in line just as they do for physical books. After two to three weeks, the e-book automatically expires from a reader’s account.”

Who wants to wait in line to read a novel on a computer?

I understand that libraries are doing the best they can, faced with restrictions from publishers (several of whom, big ones, will not license their ebooks to libraries) and the mercurial nature of electronic files. But I wonder if libraries are trying too hard to fit ebooks into a circulation model designed for physical media. While the reasons for borrowing a physical book from the library are several–it’s free, you don’t have to provide storage for something you’ll only read once, browsing the shelves provides serendipitous discoveries–right now, anyway, the only reason to get an ebook from a library website is that it is free, albeit hampered by considerable restrictions. Are there enough people willing to wait in line for a digital copy of The Lost Symbol that they will have to read on their desk- or laptop or Sony Reader, when they can buy it for around ten bucks (digital edition) or fifteen (widely discounted hardcover)? This does not sound like a situation upon which to build a future.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. >I checked out a lot of audiobooks when I lived in Seattle, due to the commute. Then the SPL started lending e-versions of the audiobooks, but I couldn't play them on my iPod, which rendered them useless–you had to have a Zune, of all things, to be able to use them on a mobile device.

    Your thoughts here pretty much mirror my thoughts about the audiobook problem. I preferred to just reserve the physical cds (which were harder and harder to find because they were investing all their audio money in these books that no one could access conveniently–who has a Zune?).

    I'm not sure that publishers *should* open up the library licensing for multiple checkouts, though–unless they were to charge similarly to the way that publishers charge libraries for subscriptions to periodicals, depending on patronage size. That way, publishers wouldn't feel like they just gave away 1000 or more possible sales because those who would normally have bought the book instead of waiting in line at the library could now get it for free. That's not sustainable for publishers.

  2. Roger Sutton says:

    >One librarian quoted in the article said she supported a per-read payment system for ebooks but publishers don't think this works for them. (Librarians aren't the only ones trying to fit new models into old molds, or however that metaphor should go.)

  3. Carol Brendler says:

    >"libraries are trying too hard to fit ebooks into a circulation model designed for physical media." Bingo. This applies to more than just ebooks, I suspect.

  4. >Exactly. I think something like that would work, though we'd of course have to implement some sort of system to track it. (I imagine libraries already have plenty of circ tools at their disposal that would show such things.)

  5. >This whole ebook thing doesn't work so well with the classics. If a library has several editions of a translated classic, I like to be able to flip through each one to figure out which translation I want to read. And sometimes my choice is based on something that's more tangible than anything — HC vs. PB, type size, font, or a pretty front cover.

    And … how high exactly DO your eyebrows go, Roger? Didn't raising them that high hurt a little?

  6. Roger Sutton says:

    >Melinda–until the world decides to conform to my expectations, I am content to live in pain. It's the R.C. in me.

  7. Julie Larios says:

    >Well, let's remember that $15 is more to some people than it is to others. Not everyone who wants to read the latest Dan Brown can whip out his wallet and buy it at a discounted price. The nice thing about having more money than the next guy, I guess, is that it makes all kinds of lines disappear. But libraries have to think of all their patrons, not just the ones who wonder why they can't get the library ebook on their iPods or Kindles. I agree that providing audio ebooks only to "Zunes" users is pretty silly (who has even heard of a Zune, much less bought one?) but my heart goes out to the library directors trying to stay ahead of the curve on technology and still serve the patron who thinks $15 could buy the workbook his son's teacher is asking him to buy for school. That guy stands in line behind 1000 other people (that's the wait list for a copy of The Lost Symbol at Seattle Public Library) and would be happy if the line for the ebook were shorter even if the format were less than state of the art, no?

  8. >From a librarian. The whole thing about having to wait in line for an ebook it not the libraries fault. That's a licensing requirement from the publisher. Why on earth would we want to enforce that? It's a total drag.

    We have an okay ebook system. The better on out there, mentioned in the article, is OverDrive. My memories of our committee discussion of OverDrive was that our discounted offer for the platform–just the software platform–was $20,000 a year. Books, about $30 each…per year. To start a collection of 1000 titles then–which is a dinky little collection–would cost $50,000 a year, which is the entire budget of the Main Library Children's Room here, or a medium-sized branch in my library system.

    So the major difficultly is that we have to find something to DROP in order to make it fit. Can we scale back our print collection that significantly?

    Now, the same thing happened when we had to start acquiring DVDs on top of our Video budget. Or squeeze in online databases along with print magazines. But our budgets aren't going up these days, they're going down. When we start adding formats, there's an overlap with the "old" format as both are still in high demand. Where do we find the money? I ask myself this every day at work.

    I actually love the idea of per use costs for ebooks…when it's no longer used, we'll stop paying for it and drop the title. That's a whole different model of acquisition for libraries, and has significantly lower back-end costs… no weeding! No Nicholson Baker skulking in our discard bins! Woo hoo!

    I understand why the publishing industry has concerns. I just hope we can move to a different pricing model. I just don't see library circulation of ebooks cutting into the ebook market anymore that library circulation of print books cuts into the print book market. It cuts–but we know by how much. When you check out an ebook from the library, you only get it for the loan period, and then it disappears (another licensing requirment). I know that that compels many library users to go buy a print copy when they have to return their print book before they've finished–won't it with ebooks too?

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