Why virtual lending is a political minefield

Sara Keating borrows some ebooks from her local library


The last time I visited my local library more people were sitting on chairs with tablet devices than were browsing the bookshelves. It would have been easy to be assume that they were just taking advantage of the library’s free wifi, but when I spoke to the librarian at the desk she said that interest in the library’s digital catalogue had grown exponentially since the previous Christmas but that users of the service still came to the library, to read or seek advice about the system. Elending services, she said, are now available in 10 of the district-library authorities in Ireland, and she talked me through the system, which is extremely user-friendly.

I opened a web browser on my phone, found the library’s home page, clicked on its digital catalogue, entered my library-card number and password, and was then admitted to the download library, which lists suggested reads by genre.

The biggest disappointment, as I expected, was the selection of books available for loan. There are plenty of classics and a substantial selection of popular fiction, but few recent releases, especially from the big publishers, although this is an international rather than an Irish problem. A recently published review of elending services in England found that 71 per cent of British public libraries make ebooks available to members but that 85 per cent of ebook titles are not available to them.

Many of the large publishers (in Ireland, Penguin, for example) have withdrawn their titles from elending catalogues. Others make it prohibitively expensive for libraries to buy books or impose severe restrictions on use.

The virtual library is a political minefield, right at the core of the copyright issues and fears about the fate of the publishing industry that have multiplied in the digital age. Although anyone who buys a printed book is legally entitled to rent or lend it, the same copyright privileges do not apply to the owners of digital volumes.

Libraries do not own the ebooks they make available to readers. Instead they have to negotiate a licensing deal for each book, which is then made available through third-party agents, such as OverDrive, which charge an annual fee and a per-book charge.

When dealing with books in their material form, the library service in Ireland is user-driven; a library member can even request a copy of a book not yet available in the library, which may then be borrowed from another library or placed on a purchase list.

With ebooks, however, the service is industry-driven, and this seems unlikely to change in the next few years, although international developments suggest that the most likely future is a model of disintegration (whereby ebooks would deteriorate after a certain number of loans) or a per-loan model (whereby libraries would pay a fee every time the book is borrowed by a reader).

When I got home that evening I installed the library software on my tablet device and decided to borrow a few books. I made my selection by following the same principles I use at the library. I often start off by looking for something specific but usually come away with a random selection of books I may never read.

I selected Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, though not the translation I wanted; Twink Unzipped, by Adele King; and The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson. I opted to read them in PDF form on my tablet (there is an ePub option for Kindle users).

There were no glitches in the download, and the books were rendered in editions as clear and crisp as any ebook I have purchased. This is not always the case with a well-thumbed book from a public library; nor is it the case with newly purchased books. Cheap translations of modern classics, such as the version of Madame Bovary I borrowed, often suffer from poor production values, including thin paper and small print.

At the end of the 21-day loan period the books disappeared from my tablet’s memory, and although I welcomed the fact that it is impossible to incur a fine in this system, I was also aware of the fact that, as a result, I would probably not finish any of the books (and I did not).

The public-lending model is not the only elending model available. Amazon runs a subscription-based digital lending library for Kindle users who sign up to its Prime service for £49 (€57) a year, giving customers access to a catalogue of 300,000 books.

Once again, big titles from the big publishers are absent from its free-to-lend catalogue, but there is a much wider selection than is available in public-library systems. The service is not currently available in Ireland, but it has recently been introduced to Amazon customers in France and Germany as well as England, so it is probably only a matter of time before Irish customers are able to use it too.

Publishers are right to be worried about how the commercial-elending model will affect their businesses. Amazon has raised fears even further by recently acquiring rights to sell second-hand ebooks.

The elending model is also being used for benevolent purposes. After a public funding campaign on the American start-up site Kickstarter, the first ehub prototype is being developed by NGO Librii, to bring library services to rural Africa. The ehub will consist of a shipping container filled with computers, printers and training materials that will allow users to access information and print books. Although it would be impossible to roll out a material library system on any large scale in the developing world, the elibrary will bring opportunities for literacy and learning to places that would otherwise be difficult to reach.

Sara Keating is a cultural journalist who contributes regularly to The Irish Times.

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