How digital content is helping secure the future of libraries

How digital content is helping secure the future of libraries

UK public libraries are going through a period of significant challenge, with the recent closing of an unprecedented number of libraries. This should be very disturbing not only to those that love and rely on libraries, but also to those who author, publish and sell books in all forms.

It’s well established that public libraries provide many of the most valuable social, educational and cultural materials and guidance to communities. This broad and expanding mission of enriching lives every day is consistent for public libraries in the UK and across the world, as evidenced by the American Library Association’s multi-year 'Libraries Transform' campaign in the U.S. As such, UK libraries are vital community resources centered around three key goals – to provide and promote reading, offer access to information and to anchor communities.

With public funding reductions in the UK, librarians face a renewed sense of urgency to ensure they provide useful, reliable and timely collections that connect readers with authors and titles. Libraries allocate significant budget and staff to enable readers to discover and benefit from as many books and reading options as possible - whether it’s childhood or adult literacy programs, encouragement for those seeking to learn English as a second language, or for students or business owners to achieve success from the knowledge contained in books.  

Thankfully, digital library resources can help achieve all these aims. They are growing across the country. And they're also contributing to the future of the wider book trade in three key ways.

1. By driving discovery in the book industry

Like a bookseller’s showroom, libraries provide a comfortable way for readers to browse, touch, review, and read titles curated across interests and purposes. Trained librarians select, merchandise and enable in-library and online catalogs to strengthen collections. As a channel to discover books beyond the bestseller list, libraries provide visibility into a vast catalog of content, including oft-overlooked subjects and first-time authors.

Robust catalogs online that contain all physical and digital book records and holdings are extremely valuable. For e-books and digital audiobooks, jacket covers, metadata and excerpts are open to anyone, anywhere and anytime. Readers and students can peruse, read or listen to a sample from the convenience of their home, office, school or while mobile. Take East Sussex County Council and the Libraries of London Borough of Redbridge as examples of these online catalogs.

Promoting an extensive catalog through a variety of formats – e-books, audiobooks and print – provides numerous ways for readers to discover titles new and old. Indeed, the impact of digital is growing beyond mere convenience. A study by the Publishers Association found that if libraries were to expand their digital collections, 22 percent of e-readers would be more inclined to purchase e-books. It’s evident that readers are looking to both libraries and digital channels for content and discovery.

2. By opening new channels for publishers

Books in digital form provide a powerful set of new tools for libraries. E-books and audiobooks from the library deliver enormous value and impact to promote discovery and appreciation, while forming an important channel for authors and publishers to grow their audience. One example is my own company, OverDrive, which partners with public institutions across the world to supply a digital book platform that promotes and recommends works from all publishers and authors. 

But while discovery is open to all, a reader must have a valid library card to borrow and download a library e-book or audiobook. The most common access model is one-copy/one-user, which is very similar to how libraries lend physical materials. For example, if a library has rights to lend a copy of a Harry Potter e-book, only one reader can access the title during a lending period. Others who want to borrow the title are added to a wait list, the same as for a print title. Only when an available title is returned or expires from a user’s shelf does an alert notify the waiting reader that it’s now available.

Titles in library catalogs receive significant exposure. For every title borrowed from a library catalog as an e-book or audiobook, many more readers view the library catalog – but do not borrow. A variety of reasons account for this: the reader is from outside the library service area, the reader will seek out print from the library or a bookstore, or readers do not want a digital book with an expiration date.

3. By giving local communities a new way to interact 

Digital book clubs allow libraries to leverage the power of digital to build community. Big Library Read, the first digital book club for libraries worldwide, showed how readers can gather virtually – even on a global scale – to read and discuss a book. Similarly, CityRead London, a city-wide book club that ran in May, is leveraging digital (e-book and audiobook) to supplement – and extend – the physical book.

The bottom line: The availability of digital content through libraries is driving the book industry forward. It deserves greater exposure, and we need to keep innovating to ensure that these crucial spaces keep inspiring readers - on and offline.