Justin Tomlinson who is the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Libraries is keen to look at the matter in more detail, as is Dan Jarvis, publishers, booksellers, librarians and users. Mr Tomlinson set out his views in an open letter response on an email list, which if you recall I responded to. He invited me to have a discussion with him today in order to better understand the views of professionals. The major point of concern is that publishers are very much of the opinion that they have a product (the eBook) and they want to get the best return on that investment that they can. They feel that by the sale of eBooks to libraries they will not get that return, and so for them to consider this, they need some form of recompense. (Individual publishers may well feel differently of course - there's no standard approach to this, and I think it's one of the things that will need to be discussed in any round table discussions that are had on the subject.)
Mr Tomlinson pointed out that he has no power to tell publishers what they should or should not do, so wanted to look at possible ways in which eBooks could be provided to users (thus satisfying our requirements) while providing a fair income model for publishers. He identified various different approaches that could be taken. There was 'do nothing', which we both agreed was pointless. An alternative was to see if the Government would pay publishers for a loss of income, which as we're living in the real world, simply isn't going to happen. The people who actually use eBooks could be expected to pay a fee for the use of the book, with some of the money going to the publisher as their remuneration, with the rest being ringfenced for the use of the library by the librarian. The final option was for the cost of the eBooks to come out of the existing budgets - either from the book budget, or by finding money from elsewhere such as reduced staff.
Mr Tomlinson feels that the majority of users of eBooks will be in a position to afford to pay their own way, if for no other reason than they already have the money for a reader. As such, they can help to support the library financially. His point to me was that if libraries don't charge for eBooks, they will be supplying a format that not everyone can use, and there will consequently be less money in the book budget for printed books which everyone can read. My opinion is that eReaders are dramatically reducing in price, people can read on their mobile device or on their computers, so I don't think they are as out of reach as he assumes. Moreover, if we look at the slightly longer term, the price is going to continue to drop, in common with all technological devices. Furthermore, if we move to a pricing model for eBooks, there will come a time when the majority of titles are not available in a physical format, and we will have slipped into a world where free access to books is gone for good. Much of the argument here is based around the extent to which eBooks will take over, the price and access to eReaders. I believe that this will happen sooner rather than later. If you take the view that books in a physical format are going to be around for a much longer time scale, it could (could!) be argued that the eBook version is an expensive add on service, akin to CDs and DVDs, which users are expected to pay for. I can understand Mr Tomlinson's view that if a library buys an eBook, (or access to an eBook) it means that some users will not be able to use it. However, not everything that a library buys is going to be used by the entire community anyway, and some expensive print materials may only be used by a small number of people. That's not necessarily a reason not to buy something however. We could also argue that buying books that cannot be removed from the library is unfair since the housebound are not going to be able to access them.
Our second area of disagreement was over the requirement for members to come into the library in order to borrow an eBook. Mr Tomlinson is very keen to protect the footfall figures of libraries (and I am with him on that!) and feels that if people can take out books electronically, they won't come into the library, resulting in a reduction in footfall, overall use of the library and less provision. He was keen to point out that exceptions could be made for the housebound for example. My feeling is that a library needs to be available 24/7, particularly in areas where people could not easily get to a library, or where a library had reduced opening hours. I also think that the administrative costs of setting up some sort of scheme would be expensive, and I'm not sure how it would cover someone with a broken leg, someone who was ill, or couldn't get out of their house due to snow for example. I think that the library needs to be a central part of the community and by having frictionless access to eBooks, library use will increase, not decrease. We also need to consider that the library is more than a bookswop - access to books (in any format) is only one of its uses.
In all, our meeting lasted about 45 minutes, so the above is simply the bare bones outline. I'm still obviously in disagreement with much of what was discussed, but as Mr Tomlinson put it, he wants to play devil's advocate and get a range of views. I also appreciate that he was happy to let me blog our meeting without any stipulations; what I have said is my interpretation of the meeting, and any errors or misconceptions of his views are mine alone. We all want the best for libraries - we're just differing on how we get there!
I don't want to rehash the entire debate again, but it seems that we in the library community need to work with, and on behalf of our members to make the best possible use that we can of technology like eReaders. We can't force publishers to sell to libraries, and we need to present them with a compelling case to show that they will ultimately make more money if they work with libraries, rather than seeing us as an enemy. After all, we're in the same business of promoting the reading of books. Aren't we?