At first glance, yesterday's news that Amazon is launching a Lending Library - an arrangement to make Kindle e-books available for libraries to loan - sounds like good news for libraries. But many librarians are taking the news in stride, glad to have more options for their patrons, but cautious - even skeptical - about the program's implementation and its impact.

The stakes are incredibly high for public libraries right now. Federal, state, and local budgets are tight. Libraries are closing or cutting back on services. Alongside these fiscal trends are digital trends: the explosive growth in e-books, something that is radically changing the face of book publishing, book distribution, and yes, book lending.

Clearly consumers are interested in reading e-books, as the latest sales figures from the Association of American Publishers demonstrate. But what isn't clear is how this interest in e-books will translate into libraries' ability to meet their patrons' demands. There are questions about licensing, DRM, fees, and formats, for example.

Amazon's announcement yesterday hasn't really cleared that up. Nor has it seemed to have quelled all of the concerns that librarians have about the future of e-books and libraries.

Good News for Libraries and Library Patrons

There is good news here, of course. The Kindle is an incredibly popular e-reader, and Amazon says that the library option will work with both the device and with Kindle apps. That greatly opens accessibility to library patrons who might not own Sony e-readers or Nooks, the two devices that, until now, were common in libraries that had e-book lending programs.

More good news: Amazon will let you annotate your library books - forbidden in print, but amazing in e-books. These notes will be uniquely yours; the next library patron won't see them. But you'll be able to access them again if you check the book out again or purchase it.

Questions Remain for Librarians

But as we noted yesterday, Amazon's announcement was light on specifics, leading many librarians to ask questions about exactly how this new lending program would work. Some of these were answered when Karen Estrovich, the collection specialist for OverDrive, a company that handles many libraries' digital content and that is partnered with Amazon to roll out this new lending library, wrote a post clarifying some issues, including one of the most important to libraries:

Will libraries have to buy new e-book copies in order to have files available in a Kindle-compatible format?

According to Estrovich, no. "Your existing collection of downloadable eBooks will be available to Kindle customers. As you add new eBooks to your collection, those titles will also be available in Kindle format for lending to Kindle and Kindle reading apps. Your library will not need to purchase any additional units to have Kindle compatibility. This will work for your existing copies and units."

But there are still other questions, including those asked by librarians Sarah Houghton-Jan and by Bobbi Newman:

  • Will this represent a change in pricing and licensing models for titles?
  • Will self-published authors on Amazon's platform have a chance of being on library "shelves" now?
  • Can library patrons opt out of linking their Amazon accounts to their library account?
  • How much check out information will Amazon have access to? How will that change if someone purchases a title they've borrowed?

And another big question: which publishers are participating? Simon & Schuster and Macmillan have opted to never license e-books to libraries. And HarperCollins has decreed that its books will "self-destruct" after 26 check-outs, forcing libraries to buy them again.

Finally, as GigaOm's Mathew Ingram asks, "Who owns the books?" What happens when publishers change their terms of use? When you actualy own a book on the bookshelf, that's not an issue. When it's a digital book, licensed to you, it's something else entirely.

What About ePUB?

The announcement may have other implications as well, as libraries will now have access to Amazon's (proprietary) Kindle file format in addition to the open format ePUB. ePUB, available as both DRM and DRM-free, has been the primary format in which libraries have distributed their e-books. While ePUB files work on other e-readers and e-reader apps (on the Nook, on Kobo, on Stanza, and on Sony's e-reader, for example), Amazon has not supported ePUB on the Kindle (as a delivery format).

Will Amazon now support ePUB? That seems unlikely. Will Amazon use Adobe Digital Edition's DRM services on ePUB? Again, unlikely. Amazon already has DRM "baked in" to its e-book format.

What will happen, then, to ePUB now that Amazon brings its own format and DRM into the library market? According to Mike Cane, in a rather provocative statement, "ePUB is dead."

That's certainly a better headline than "the library is dead."

Of course, declarations of "this changes everything!" and "X killed Y!" are often overblown. But it's hard to argue that the move of Amazon into the book lending space is likely to have major ramifications for libraries. Librarians hope it's for the better, but their early reactions to the news may be more cautious than optimistic.

Photo credits: Austria National Library