Pilots carried out into remote e-lending from libraries have found that e-books accounted for less than 5% of library loans, with footfall to libraries and bookshops likely to drop as digital borrowers are less likely to visit branches.
A tiny proportion, less than 1% of people, used the "buy" buttons next to titles to purchase the e-book after borrowing. The research also showed that e-book borrowers tended to be more affluent and less likely to visit libraries.
The research was commissioned by the Publishers Association and the Society of Chief Librarians, funded by the British Library Trust and Arts Council England, following a recommendation from the Sieghart Report into library e-lending which urged more research to be done into remote e-lending patterns.
Tim Godfray, c.e.o. of the Booksellers Association, said the finding showed why remote e-lending was a "major concern" for bookshops.
He said: "The research findings highlight the serious ramifications that we believe e-book lending will have on our bookshops, not to mention the potential reduction of people visiting libraries. 39% of e-book borrowers said that they were much less likely to visit a bookshop; 37% said they were much less likely to purchase printed books; and 31% said they were much less likely to purchase e-books. If public libraries are able to loan as many e-books as they want without fair and balanced controls, many commercial aspects of the book trade would be harmed. We will continue to lobby for a fair system that allows libraries to lend e-books but with the proper oversight and controls in place."
The study, carried out by MTM London, took place across four library authorities, Peterborough City Council and Newcastle City Council as urban centres, and Derbyshire County Council and the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead as rural areas. Peterborough and Windsor used loan periods of seven days, while Newcastle and Derbyshire trailed 21-day periods. The books on offer, made available by publishers, were made up of 893 frontlist titles, making up 35% of the authorities e-book stock, though still less than 5% of their total fiction collections. Limits imposed to mirror physical loans meant only one user could take a title at a time.
Remote e-lending was stimulated by the pilots, with the titles made available more popular than existing collections, and new users joining the service. However, overall numbers were still low, accounting for less than 5% of all fiction borrowing, and just 2.4% in Derbyshire, with new users less than 5% of all active borrowers. During the course of the pilots, e-lending from the new collections declined.
Less than half of users said they were happy with the available titles, with 95% saying a greater range would encourage more borrowing, with 10% of titles accounting for 36% of loans, suggesting bestsellers would attract more borrowing.
The study showed that the impact on e-book buying was inconclusive - e–book borrowers tended to already buy high numbers of e-books, with a less than a third of people saying they were less likely to buy e-books in future, and the same number saying there were no more or less likely to buy e-books. 18% said they did not buy e-books anyway, with the same amount of people saying they planned to buy more e-books following the pilot. More than half of borrowers said a greater range of books to borrow would lead to them buying fewer e-books, while 22% they would buy more as a result.
The pilot also found that e-book borrowers bought fewer print books than other library users during the pilot period, with half saying they no longer bought print books, or were less likely to buy print books in future.
In terms of demographic, the remote e-lending users were older and affluent, and less likely to visit their local libraries than other users. 68% were over 45, compared to 47% of all UK library visitors.
The report concludes: "The pilot programmes generated only a limited number of new users of the e-lending service. Initially, librarians largely see e-book lending as a way to give more choices to existing members – and particularly to older members, who may want to access the service from home… It is possible that an exponential growth in e-book stocks would attract many more people, and would certainly be welcomed by those who already borrow e-books (95% of them would increase their borrowing if a broader range of titles were available). If publishers broadened their e-book offerings to libraries, most libraries would expect to allocate less than 25% of their book budgets to e-book purchases. Given pressures on budgets, librarians considered it unlikely they would be able to invest in 1,000s of additional e-books each year."
It added: "E-books are popular with a significant number of readers, and can enable libraries also to enhance their offerings to groups such as the partially sighted, the elderly, and the housebound. This e-book pilot – well-received by library users and by librarians – confirms the value of e-book provision that Sieghart identified, and points the way towards a future for digital lending across the library network."