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We like e-readers – but library users are still borrowing books

What place do e-readers – and in particular ebooks – hold in the reading behaviour of Australia’s 10 million public library borrowers? There are some 181 million items loaned every year by the nation’s…

E-readers are more and more popular – but Australians are slow to take up the option of borrowing e-books from public libraries. Steve Walker, CC BY-ND

What place do e-readers – and in particular ebooks – hold in the reading behaviour of Australia’s 10 million public library borrowers? There are some 181 million items loaned every year by the nation’s 1,500 public libraries, branches, mobile libraries and other service points but, according to the latest survey-based report from the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA), for the majority of these libraries, ebook loans represent less than 1% of the total.

E-readers were the must-have new gadget gifts for Christmas 2010. Kindle, Sony, Kobo: these devices brought ebooks into the homes of thousands of keen Australian readers. Add tablets and smartphones to the equation and ebooks became accessible anywhere, any time, provided you could afford to purchase everything you wanted to read.

The results of two surveys carried out by the Australian Public Library Alliance (part of the Australian Library and Information Association), the first in January 2013, the second in May 2014, clearly illustrated the difficulties faced by libraries in providing their users with ebook collections. The key findings of the comparative surveys included:

  • Nearly all Australian public libraries lend ebooks; up from 69% in 2013 to 97% in 2014.
  • On average, ebooks make up 5-6% of a public library’s collection.
  • In 53% of public libraries, ebooks account for less than 1% of loans, and in almost all, they account for less than 5% of loans.
  • Between half and two thirds of libraries are less than satisfied or not satisfied with the choice of bestsellers, books by Australians, popular authors and overall content.

Libraries are experiencing some demand for ebook lending. One of the library participants in the 2014 survey commented, “there is still a high level of unmet demand experienced by public library customers, particularly for recently published bestsellers”. Another said, “more and more people are turning to Amazon because of the lack of content available to Australian libraries”.

Why can’t library users read the latest ebooks?

An underlying issue is that the major publishers, including Penguin, Random House, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Macmillan, have struggled to find a model for lending ebooks to public libraries.

Although digital rights management ensures library ebooks disappear from devices after the loan period (generally three weeks) has expired, fears of piracy and a negative impact on sales have meant these big players have resisted engaging with libraries until very recently. Even now, some of these publishers will not sell ebooks to libraries in Australia.

The irony is that this position is not only detrimental to libraries and library users – explaining the lack of satisfaction with the choice of bestsellers, books by Australians, popular authors and overall content – it could also have a negative impact on the publishers who are seeking to protect their market share.

Book buying and book borrowing are not mutually exclusive; in fact, quite the opposite.

Libraries on the up

A 2012 survey by Pew Research Center in the US found that library card holders were more than twice as likely to have bought their most recent book as to have borrowed it from a library and that among those who read ebooks, 41% of those who borrowed ebooks from libraries purchased their most recent ebook.

Libraries are an essential part of the book industry, introducing readers to different genres, helping people discover different authors, and purchasing US$123 million-worth of content. By preventing library users from accessing their ebooks, publishers are potentially driving readers away from Australian books and Australian authors.

There is no doubt that, operationally, ebooks introduce a new dynamic in libraries. The Australian Library and Information Association produced a discussion paper in 2013 entitled 50:50 by 2020 that argued that public library collections will still have at least 50% of their collections in print at this date – and that in some regional library services, ebooks will still be in a small minority.

The future?

The authors of the ALIA Futures report on public libraries summed up the challenges for public libraries neatly:

Whatever the actual percentages, the challenge for public libraries and their funders will be to maintain collections of the same titles in multiple formats. This will require discussions at a national and international level with publishers, firstly to achieve an economic model that works for all parties, and secondly to work through the technical issues of lending ebooks to users whose devices operate on different platforms.

It is an exciting time for public libraries to explore the potential of the digital environment. There will always be cynics to question the role of public libraries in an increasingly online world, but one only has to look at the usage figures to realise that, whether their collections are print or electronic, libraries are thriving.

Ten million Australians can’t be wrong.

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3 Comments sorted by

  1. David Howard

    Home Duties

    I think the challenge for libraries is that most compete for funding with other local government services. 30 years ago they were the primary source of information and children played in the backyard, on the streets in in the school grounds.

    Now, the backyards have gone, the streets are busy and the schools have 2 metre fences. Meanwhile every household has access to all the information in the world via computers and phones and a major problem with childhood obesity.

    In my local government area, council has restricted use of playing fields because demand is so great. How long before the priority becomes artificial turf resulting in 24x7 access and the cost coming from other council services.

  2. Raine S Ferdinands

    Education at Education

    Give me books anytime. Nothing like the touchy-feely thing. Best of all, licking fingers to turn the pages ... yummy!!

  3. David Furler

    Information Systems Specialist

    Great article Damian,

    I fear one of the greatest stumbling blocks is not so much the books though but the software.

    Neither Kindle on iOS or Android or iBooks support the DRM necessary to enable ebook lending by libraries, nor do they have any mechanism for finding loanable texts inside their own closely held ecosystems.

    The situation is a little better for special libraries, but I suspect for best seller and cult titles the move towards a paid "all you can eat" service like Spotify or iTunes Radio is probably where we will end up.

    Such a great pity for younger generations and others who, not being able to afford such a service, will probably just resort to pirating the titles anyway. They will miss the joy of being a fan of not just libraries, but also the fun of becoming loyal to a publisher and eagerly seeking out anything they publish.