Will Your Local Library Lend E-Books? (Or Can They?)

Amazon has recently touted that sales of Kindle books are outstripping those of both hardcover and paperback editions. And a Forrester forecast earlier this week gauged that the sales from e-books for 2010 would hit over $1 billion. It seems as though the market for digital literature is strong.

But according to some publishers, if libraries start lending e-books, it could serve to “undo the entire market for e-book sales.” Those were the words of Stephen Page, CEO of the publisher Faber and Faber who spoke last month at a library conference in the U.K. and announced the Publisher Association’s new stance on e-book lending via libraries.

Lending E-Books, But With Restrictions

He told those present that “all the major trade publishers have agreed to work with aggregators to make it possible for libraries to offer e-book lending” with the addition of certain “controls.” These controls would require library patrons to be onsite in order to access the e-books. And furthermore, libraries will only be able to lend one copy of an e-book to one individual at any given time. Why, it’s almost as if digitizing books did not free them from their physical confines.

These restrictions hamper the access of those who cannot visit libraries in order to read books – the homebound and the disabled, for example. They make the process of interlibrary loan impossible. And honestly, they seem a little absurd. But these policies – both for personal and library lending – echo the sorts of restrictions that DRM has long demanded around music and movie sharing, and they come with the same sort of doom-and-gloom predictions should people be able to share content freely.

Looking for (DRM-Free) Alternatives

But not all publishers are on board with this idea. Springer Verlag recently announced that it would make its e-books available without DRM restrictions to institutional purchases. “Libraries buy direct from us and they own the content,” says the publisher’s director of channel marketing George Scotti. “Once users download content, they can give it out, share, whatever. They own it. Some of our competitors are afraid to do this, but we say, free the content.”

Challenging the publishing industry’s attachment to DRM, in an article this weekend in the Guardian, Simon Barron contends that “Applying physical paradigms to digital commodities shows a lack of digital understanding. Cory Doctorow argues that trying to control digital copies of work on the internet is ‘a fool’s errand: that digital works require different models for control, distribution and profit. The price for trading in digital commodities is to accept the nature of digital commodities: they can be copied, they are accessible virtually anywhere, and that physical restrictions do not and cannot apply.”

Libraries of the Future: Lending E-Books and E-Readers

Whether or not they can access DRM-free content from publishers, Some libraries are adapting. Recognizing the growing demand for e-books, they are pursuing not just the lending programs for e-books but those for e-readers as well, in order to help their patrons access material digitally. While the Terms of Service say you can’t share your account information on the devices, the Library Journal suggests that Amazon may be simply turning a blind eye to the enforcement around this.

Libraries will have to embrace digital books to stay relevant to readers looking for books. Of course libraries’ relevance involves much more than simply being a repository for books, e- or otherwise. Libraries are community centers. They are places where people can access not just literature and the latest magazines, but also find Internet access and computer stations.

It’s worth noting too, that despite the great role that libraries play in literacy and in the preservation of literature, they are only a small part of the buying market for books – less than 4% by Faber and Faber’s own admission. So to say that allowing libraries to lend e-books will destroy the publishing industry seems – excuse my literary reference here – a bit of a tall tale.

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