Guest Column: Libraries walk fine line balancing e-book investments

By Emily Klonicki

Loaning e-books is like playing with some other kid’s ball on the playground. There is always a risk that the other kid will take back his or her ball and go home.”— Christopher Harris, author of ALA’s Infomancy blog

Publishing and reading trends change and evolve, and libraries have always been responsible for keeping up-to-date and current with the changing needs and demands of their users. The foray into the ever-shifting world of e-book lending is the most recent part of this process, and libraries across America are working hard to make sound decisions about how to include e-content as a part of their collections. Libraries have to walk a fine line, though, balancing their investment into e-books with patron demand because the new landscape of e-book library lending is only just taking shape.

When a library buys a paper book, they have what is called “first sale rights” to the book. That means they can use the book in any way they like within the limitations of copyright law. They can lend the book as many times as they like, they may sell the book when they are done with it, or they may give the book away. In short, as you would expect, they own the book they have purchased.

Conversely, when a library “buys” an e-book, what they are actually paying for is a license to that title with limitations set (and changed without notice) by the title’s publishers and by OverDrive, the digital content distributor. Limitations may include the number of times the title can be checked out before the library has to pay for the book again (renew its license) and how many patrons can download the title at the same time (in essence the number of “copies” the library “owns”) and now, after a drastic move by Penguin Publishers last week that disabled Kindles from downloading library-lent Penguin titles, what devices it will allow to access the title. In short, the library is basically borrowing the rights to the title, which can be changed, eliminated or made more expensive to the library at any time.

You don’t have to be a lawyer to see the many problems with this model. A library investing in e-books on these unstable terms can hardly know what they will really get back for their investment. The problems surrounding library lending of e-books will continue to plague libraries as they work to build digital collections until the courts settle the policies and laws that govern the e-book lending arena. And don’t hold your breath … it’s not going to be anytime soon — we’ll be lucky to see reliable regulation in the next 10 years. Until then, libraries have very little control over the content they purchase, as their e-content collections will be at the mercy of any whim that OverDrive (the virtual landlord of their e-book collection), Amazon, and any publisher may have.

In response to this unstable platform for e-content, some libraries — especially smaller libraries with limited collection budgets — have opted to stay out of the e-content world until they can be guaranteed security in their investment. While this is an understandable position, it is not the answer. Libraries are responsible for keeping up-to-date with user needs and providing information in a variety of formats that reflect the needs of its community. Patrons are becoming increasingly interested in more access to e-content, so libraries need to rise to the occasion and find a way to provide access to a solid collection of e-content.

This is no small order. Libraries across the country have proven to be very creative in their approach to addressing the e-book issue. Many have taken a collaborative approach, creating regional or even statewide consortiums for collecting digital content so users have access to a wide collection while the burden of investment is shared between multiple libraries, protecting all from gambling too much of their collection budget on e-books. Other libraries have chosen not to join in collaborative collections and are generally allotting a responsible, yet steady, percentage of their collection budget to e-content — around 5-7 percent — to complement and add to their core collection in traditional format. This percentage can grow as the library lending world of e-books stabilizes and consumer demand grows. Many libraries expect to spend up to 10 percent of their collection budget on e-content by 2020.

A careful librarian who knows the library’s collection and the community it serves can develop an excellent collection of varied content that will serve a population’s demand within the bounds of a limited budget. It’s what librarians have been doing for centuries. In taking this slow, but steady, approach to collecting e-content, whether through a consortium or alone, libraries are able to create a solid e-book collection on which to build without risking compromise to its core collection. After all, if one or more of the many big-name empires in this arena (Amazon, OverDrive or any of the publishing companies) falls or the e-reader bubble bursts, the library will go on serving its patrons with its core collection standing — a collection that no one can take away.

Emily Klonicki is the assistant director and children’s librarian of Ida Public Library. Her passion is public library services and she is an advocate for the public library. She lives with her family in Rockford and uses library services nearly every day of her life.

From the Jan. 18-24, 2012, issue

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