Libraries and e-lending—it feels like we’re making progress

Last month, the government published its recommendations about e-lending—tthe Sieghart Review—and most of us in the public library world let out a cautious sigh of relief. It feels like we’ve been in a hard place for a couple of years, but there are starting to be promising signs of an e-book spring. 

E-books in libraries are still a very new development. Public libraries only started lending e-books when Overdrive launched in the UK, five years ago. It was the first third-party solution that gave us a means of hosting and lending books, something that our own IT systems couldn’t do, and there was an immediate strong take-up, followed by the emergence of two other major aggregator/suppliers:  Bloomsbury and Askews  Today, two-thirds of public library services offer e-books.

But a third don’t. If you ask them why, they give three reasons: the poor range of stock available, the volatility of the technology and the market, and the set-up costs.

For the past couple of years, the public library e-book offer has been poor. A recent survey of the most-borrowed paper books of 2012 showed that 85% were simply unavailable to public libraries. James Patterson, John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell, Victoria Hislop, and pretty much every other bestselling author is unavailable to us, and consequently to public library users.

Lack of stock has been our biggest, but not our only problem. Next is the fact that Amazon dominates the e-reader market, with an estimated 60% of e-reader users holding a Kindle—and you can’t borrow library books on a Kindle.

Another problem was the technology. Up until recently, if you wanted to set yourself up as an e-borrower, it was a 28-step process fraught with pitfalls. Only the technically competent, those people with precocious grandchildren—or the truly dogged—were borrowing.

But things are looking up. Shortly before Christmas, Random House released its backstock to Overdrive, which provided some welcome content just in time for those people who were given e-readers for Christmas. And now the Sieghart Review has recognised the importance of the public library service in the reading chain and the need for services to keep pace with people’s reading habits, recommending that e-lending is free and that downloading be possible remotely, which is something that most public librarians feel passionately about.

It’s now important that we move forward and capitalise on the goodwill expressed by all parties to the Sieghart panel. The Society of Chief Librarians is working with the Reading Agency and publishers to build on a  “digital marketing” project, the concept that libraries and their websites and catalogues can be used as shop windows, with publisher’s materials such as graphics and reviews adding value to public library stock. There have been a lot of excellent relationships developed during the process, and these will now be used to put together e-lending pilot projects which will hopefully lead to sustainable business models which will benefit every component in the book chain —not least the end reader.

There are some real opportunities. One person in five in this country uses a library: that’s a lot of promotional opportunities, and a lot of customer data that could be used to feed the book trade. And research last year has proved what we already knew, that public library users aren’t just big readers—they are big buyersPeople who love reading get their books through a variety of means, only one of which is borrowing. Libraries exist to foster and encourage and develop reading, and we are happy to encourage people to buy through our systems, either from booksellers or directly from publishers – just as long as we can continue to be gateways and guides to the fabulous wealth of UK literature, and to lend books free to people who can’t get them elsewhere.

In short, public library services are passionate about reading, we’re anxious to help to develop the ebook market in the UK, and we have a very, very big customer base.  Here’s to the Sieghart report, the new relationships that will develop as a result—and the fervent hope that e-lending will flourish.