Voices for the Library cautiously welcomes the news that Ed Vaizey has announced a review of ebooks in public libraries. Both users and professionals believe that ebooks should play a central role in the delivery of library services. Providing access to information, no matter what format, has always been central to the ethos of the public library.
Whilst we are pleased to learn that a review has been launched, we continue to be disappointed by the attitude of the Publishers Association. Richard Mollet, chair of the Association, recently told Channel 4:
“When it is as easy to buy a book as to click a button and borrow one, a lot more people are going to take the borrowing option, and that has serious implications for authors and their royalties, for booksellers and as well for publishers.”
At Voices for the Library, we do not believe that loaning ebooks will damage the publishing industry any more than the lending of print books has done. It may be as easy to click a button and borrow a book as it is to buy one, but it is equally as easy to click a button and buy a book. Furthermore, whilst it may be easy to click and borrow an ebook, the user is only borrowing it for a limited time. After three weeks, that ebook disappears from the user’s device. As such, for the vast majority of readers, we can only see the limited borrowing of an ebook as encouraging user to buy more ebooks, not fewer.
The Publishers Association also fails to take into account that the reverse is true – that for many it has always been as easy to buy a book (in printed form) as to borrow one, and yet this has not harmed book sales. For those living in rural communities a trip to the library is far more convenient than a trip to the town centre to buy a book. And yet, despite the supposed advantage the Publishers Association suggests, public libraries have not forced the closure of bookshops up and down the country.
We assume that the Publishers Association’s response to ebooks in libraries is drawn from their fear that digital books will do for their industry as it has done for the music industry. There is no evidence that the free provision of ebooks in public libraries will have the impact they fear.
The review is an opportunity to put the case for public libraries offering ebooks to their users free of charge. We must ensure that the Publishers Association’s scare-mongering doesn’t drown out reason and common sense. Now is the time for a grown-up, reasoned discussion about where ebooks fit in the public library service. We hope that the Publishers Association will engage constructively and sensibly in the debate. Both their industry and public libraries will be relying on it.