Are e-books the future for library services?

In his 1909 publication, The Old Librarian’s Almanack, American author Edmund Pearson cited the “Curse Against Book Stealers”, a medieval inscription purportedly found above the door of the Monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona:

“For him that stealeth a Book from this Library, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with Palsy, and all his Members blasted. Let him languish in Pain crying aloud for Mercy and let there be no sur-cease to his Agony till he sink in Dissolution. Let Bookworms gnaw his Entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, and when at last he goeth to his final Punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever and aye”

I have to admit that in attending the APPG on libraries last week, I was half expecting a similarly measured reaction towards the subject of the discussion: e-books. After all, for those of us who love books, there is something faintly sterile, about the use of an e-book reader. And when it comes to libraries, the ‘let’s close them all down and give everyone a Kindle and an Amazon account’ perspective is dangerously alluring in the context of a massive savings agenda for local government.

Despite my preconceptions, the tone was, if anything, cautiously welcoming from the members of the panel. Richard Mollet of the Publishers’ Association noted concerns in the industry that people will borrow e-books from libraries rather than buying them, but emphasised their support for libraries and the need for new research to inform the debate.

Steve Potash, CEO of Overdrive, a digital distributer, argued that browsing for e-books on library catalogues will ultimately create more readers and elevate book sales overall.

Christopher Platt, Director of Collections and Circulation Operations at the New York Public Library, spoke with enthusiasm of electronic books, which have been embraced by the library and now constitute 2 per cent of its massive 28 million issues every year.

And Olivia Cole, literary editor at GQ discussed the potential of e-books for curating content, introducing readers to new authors, while stressing the importance of preserving libraries as physical spaces for the community.

This surely is the heart of the issue for local authorities. As Chair Justin Tomlinson MP pointed out, at a time when local government is in the depths of a never-ending Narnian winter of financial austerity, it is tempting to see in the massive rise in e-book sales (388 per cent increase last year) a justification for shifting away from physical spaces to electronic provision. This would not be unprecedented. When it comes to customer services, most authorities are currently involved in channel shift programmes to drive people away from public advice centres towards online engagement.

Justin Tomlinson argues that if we are to safeguard library provision in the form that we know it, while exploring new forms of distribution like e-books, we must secure additional sources of funding. And our options are limited:

1) increased central government spend;

2) increased local government spend;

3) publishers provide content for free;

4) libraries divert their current budget towards e-books; or

5) local authorities find new ways to generate revenue from e-books.

Given that the first three options are about as likely as 50 Shades of Grey winning the Man Booker Prize, and the fourth (and currently most common) option has long term sustainability issues, ways of generating revenue from e-book provision should be of huge interest to the sector. But what form should this take, and at what cost to the library?

Justin Tomlinson’s view is that libraries should be able to charge a small fee for lending an electronic copy of a book, which would then be ring-fenced for the general library budget. This is on the basis that anyone who can afford an e-reader can also afford to pay a small subsidy for the privilege of reading their library book in electronic format.

The main challenge to this view was that a) it is based on the current reality of readership, which could date very quickly – e-readers may drop in value over the next year for example, and b) that when you charge a fee for loaning a book, you begin to compete with Amazon, whose prices are already fairly unassailable.  A member of the audience found a potential compromise solution in a hybrid model that allows readers to pay for immediate access to a text if the free copy is checked out.

Steve Potash of OverDrive took a more commercial view. His organisation is helping an increasing number of libraries to generate income by selling sponsored bookshelves in their buildings, and advertising space on their online catalogue browsing pages. As library browsing tends to generate book sales, there is growing interest from online sellers like Amazon in library sites that will (for a fee per click), host ‘buy now’ links to their own websites.

There was concern in the room about the potential dangers of ad generated revenue. Who do we trust to curate our libraries; librarians, or advertisers with a commercial interest in selling books?

These are legitimate concerns. Nevertheless, if it comes to a choice between closing a branch library, and finding new (potentially undesirable) ways of generating revenue, local authorities could be forgiven for taking the chance, and run the risk of having their ‘Entrails gnawed by Bookworms’.

The secretariat for the Library APPG is provided by the Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals (CILIP). For more information please follow this link.

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