Voices for the Library broadly welcomes the “Independent Review of E-Lending in Public Libraries in England” written by William Sieghart, Chair of the Review panel. We hope that this report paves the way for greater collaboration between library authorities, publishers and other interested parties, as well as reinforcing the crucial role libraries must play in our digital future.
The report outlines a number of key recommendations:
- The lending of ebooks should be a service provided free of charge.
- Library members should be able to borrow digital books from their libraries remotely.
- Each copy of a digital book should only be loaned to one reader at a time.
- Digital copies should be “deemed to deteriorate”.
- The Public Lending Right (PLR) should be extended to cover digital, audio and e-audio books.
In submitting our evidence to the Review panel, we argued strongly that ebooks should be offered free of charge to library users. The core ethos of a public library service is ensuring free access to information for all. With this in mind, charging for the lending of ebooks was contrary to this core belief. Ebooks should not be treated any different to print, particularly as there is little evidence to suggest that providing free access has an adverse impact upon ebook (or book) sales.
We also argued strongly that ebooks should be available to download remotely. Ebooks provide a great opportunity to reach out to those who are unable to access their local library, particularly the housebound. Ensuring that ebooks can be downloaded remotely ensures that the housebound are empowered to borrow books without having to utilise a surrogate to make their choices for them. As a result, remote download has the potential to level the playing field in terms of access to information for the housebound and the regular library visitor.
We also accepted that each copy of a digital book should only be loaned to one reader at a time. It is reasonable to require that libraries purchase multiple ebook editions rather than one copy that can be borrowed by multiple users at the same time. To insist on the latter, in our view, would be unfair on publishers and book sellers and would, therefore, be an unreasonable demand to make.
We also welcome the move to conduct further research in terms of ebooks in public libraries to gather more evidence on digital lending in the UK. We look forward to finding out more about the plan for publishers to work with the Society of Chief Librarians, the Arts Council England and The Reading Agency to establish a methodology to address the lack of evidence which will then feed into an agreed national approach for digital lending.
However, whilst we accept many of the recommendations above, we do not accept the premise that digital copies should be “deemed to deteriorate”. This appears to suggest that an arbitrary number of issues (or time period) would be imposed upon the library authority, requiring a further purchase of a particular ebook. As our submission clearly set out, an arbitrary figure (like that proposed by HarperCollins in 2011) assumes that all printed book stock has the same life span and usage patterns, which is an unrealistic assumption.
Overall, we are broadly supportive of the recommendations made in Sieghart’s report. Whilst we are disappointed that more of our recommendations weren’t adopted, we accept that they were perhaps too radical to be considered at this stage. We are pleased, however, that the recommendation we (and others) made to extend the PLR has been endorsed and we accept the majority of the recommendations made, despite our reservations about digital copies being “deemed to deteriorate”. We hope that this report paves the way for a constructive way forward and we look forward to greater co-operation between library authorities and publishers in the future.