Ebooks in public libraries – response to the Publishers Association statement

This is a statement from Voices for the Library in response to the speech given by Stephen Page at the Public Libraries Authorities conference yesterday.

We are very concerned about the recent announcement by the Publishers Association regarding the availability of ebooks in public libraries.  The decision to limit access to those physically able to visit the library, with a mobile device suitable for reading ebooks, is potentially catastrophic for ebook provision in public libraries.

Not only does this threaten a service that has proven to be immensely popular with library users, it undermines the effort by libraries to reach out to housebound borrowers, the disabled and those living in remote areas far from their nearest public library.  It also further undermines efforts to reposition libraries and encourage literacy in the digital age, an age where people increasingly question the need for libraries and librarians.  A policy such as this seriously inhibits the library service from adapting to current realities and potentially threatens the entire service.

Furthermore, it restricts efforts to provide a 24/7 library service fit for the 21st century.  The delivery of remote ebook access has been a highly successful initiative, with many services seeing increased demand,  including the return of those who had ceased using the library service.  The increased demand for ebooks should be seen as an opportunity for publishers, not a threat.

Whilst we understand the concerns of publishers, we believe that the benefits of equitable access far outweigh the concerns over isolated incidents of unauthorised usage, or indeed concerns about the impact on publisher’s profits.  We believe very strongly in free and equal access to information for all. The proposed restrictions seriously jeopardise these principles and reinforce unequal access to information resources, creating a growing digital divide between those with access and those without.  Such a division goes against the very spirit of a universal public library service.

In a time of threatened cuts to public services, we need champions for equal access to information more than ever. Consequently, we urge the Publishers Association to rethink their decision and work with libraries and other agencies to ensure that public libraries can continue to offer a service that meets the needs of their users.

The Publishers Association and relevant public library bodies need to reach a proper compromise, in the interest of the public, library services and publishers. It is beneficial to all stakeholders for public libraries to offer ebooks in the same way as other digital resources such as databases – through remote access. It is counterintuitive and counterproductive for access to digital resources to be restricted and accessible only through physical library services.

16 thoughts on “Ebooks in public libraries – response to the Publishers Association statement

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  2. Library Web

    This was actually first officially announced in ‘The Modernisation Review of Public Libraries – a Policy Statement from the DCMS’ Dec. last. The copyright legislation to allow libraries to lend e-books in this manner went/is going through with the Digital Rights bill if I remember correctly:


    (I think the above is correct, the details are in the DCMS document linked to above.)

    From what I understand libraries may still use Overdrive etc., but now also have the option to buy their own e-books and place them on a server. (Whether it is cheaper or not to outsource the server to an Overdrive type service and taking into account other issues I’m not sure if this is desirable.)

    There is also the issue of PLR – which does not currently extend to electronic works. There was a plan to extend it, but it bit the dust with the abandoning of the modernisation fund earlier this year.


  3. Library Web

    An aside, and knowing librarians’ penchant for stories 😉 The plans for this were actually made numbers of months before the DCMS announcement, but during these months and prior to the Modernisation Review, someone somewhere, I don’t know who or why, seemed to be doing their utmost to keep the whole thing quiet. Publishers at the time were not at all happy about the proposition, and so it could have been publishers doing their best to stifle any conversation about e-books (this was still early days for e-books) and the idea that libraries should lend them. Otherwise I’m not sure.

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  6. Paul Gahan

    Not sure what you mean by “This was actually first officially announced”. If you mean restricting e-book downloads to within libraries that is certainly not true. The document you link to actually says this:
    ” E-books will enable library services to remain relevant in a market where people are using mobile devices to access information and entertainment and will provide a new opportunity to reach people who may not visit their local library building regularly, but who would like to borrow e-books from home…The Government believes that e-book lending is likely to form a key 24/7 public service in the future with public library services being accessed from home and on the move as well as in library buildings.”

  7. Digital Publisher

    Free access for all is a laudable principle which ought to stretch into the digital era, of course. But libraries should be more proactive and less passive about their own shortcomings, namely the fact that there is currently no system to ensure that access to library loans is kept to local populations. Why should publishers sell one copy of an ebook which the entire country (indeed, even those abroad) can access by simply providing an address in the UK?

    Academic libraries have been in the game of secure access management for over a decade. I suggest public libraries perhaps learn a few lessons first before they attempt to serve up digital content willy nilly.

    1. Ian Anstice

      It is possible to limit loans geographically in a public library context, at least partially. To do so, a library authority needs only to ask for proof of address to be presented in a library in order to get a full library card. Without a full library card, access to sites is limited to those who do mind being accessed by everyone. This has worked well for years in my authority.

      This goes a long way to meet three of the four “maximum controls” listed by Stephen Page. To insist on all four controls (forcing the user to come into the library) would effectively kill ebook-lending in any significant form in public libraries.

      Publishers, presumably, wish to be reasonable in this matter and not demand four out of four of their demands be met. Hopefully, libraries and publishers can come to a reasonable compromise, as they have done so in the last 160 years of our mutual existence.

  8. Library Web

    Chinese downloaders to blame for UK library e-book crackdown

    “Apparently e-book readers in China were “joining British libraries and plundering their virtual collections for free,” … From that point of view, it’s understandable that publishers would want to impose restrictions.”

    It is page 42 of the Modernisation Review where the current PA proposals are first mentioned and also where Paul Gahan’s quote is to be found. This does seem a bit schizophrenic. The section I was referring to being further down the page, “New legislation around digital lending”.

    1. Paul Gahan

      But further down the page still it adds “The detail of the new arrangements ….will not interfere with the arrangements already in operation or opportunities for libraries to develop other arrangements for digital delivery with publishers and booksellers.”

  9. Library Web

    A few of the comments on twitter in recent days:

    “Where is Spotify for #ebooks?” (xref. http://librarianchat.com/forum/index.php?topic=2308.0 )

    ‘…ebooks as a “national service”‘

    “I wonder if a single authentication scheme for public libraries like Athens/Shibboleth would help with the ebooks furore?”

    Publishers are very adamant that they still want the geographical lending limitations on e-books as per their paper cousins.

    Anyway all of the above should have been discussed at about the same time as the Modernisation Review, something very fishy going on here if you ask me. It’s a case of ramraiding by publishers (or whoever, I’m not 100% sure). It has been done and dusted and decided on and heisted on the public and library community before they have even had chance to figure out what has hit them. It’s not the first time I can say I’ve noticed this (OCLC and opening up the DDC on the web is another example), and the common denominator is publishers with a large financial interest in keeping the public away from something that would be of great service.

  10. libraryweb

    The ongoing saga, I’ve put a post on LIS-PUB-LIBS suggesting what the libraries terms should be to publishers for e-book lending:

    Re: more on ebooks – please don’t switch off

    John Dolan (retired MLA library policy head) started the thread off on the subject of e-book pricing:

    “Stephen King’s Just After Sunset, for example, has been priced at £17.99 for the ebook as opposed to £4.99 for the paperback”

    more on ebooks – please don’t switch off

    You know there could be an international argument to this in terms of international competitiveness. The nation that gets e-books right and the library service that takes the best reader centred approach to get people reading might just find itself nudging ahead. Japan I note is doing something about all the different e-book formats[1], while France is making an effort to enable its population to have to go to only one website to find the nation’s e-book literature in its entirety (no citation on this one am afraid, ask if you want me to hunt it down).
    [1] Japanese ebook industry to create common format, http://www.teleread.com/paul-biba/japanese-ebook-industry-to-create-common-format/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+teleread%2FKHnj+%28TeleRead%3A+Bring+the+E-Books+Home%29

    E-books could potentially at least in theory at this stage I think it is fair to say make a difference to the economy. This is not just a free lunch either. Where is the economic argument arguing that with a strategy the economy could get a boost from e-books (and that libraries are a key part of this strategy — as they have been a key in the reading stratgey of the nation for the past 160 years). Anyone know any economists?

    “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn” – Toffler

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  13. Ross Dow

    Public Libraries are an essential part of most communities and have provided a terrific service to the general public at all levels. The system, however, is a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to change. It took a while to move into the computer age but now provides a service to those who cannot afford computers or internet. Ebooks are the future. Before long, the majority of people will have a reader and will stop using the libraries unless ebook lending is scaled up dramatically. They must grasp the nettle soon.

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