There's been movement on the eBook lending front again. Forgive for starting the blog by throwing a lot of reading at you, but it's necessary for context. Dan Jarvis (Shadow Culture Minister) has called for a report on eBook lending. In his blog he says, and I quote
“Following my question in the Chamber on the 14th June, I was pleased to meet with Ed Vaizey and a number of publishers to discuss the issues relating to e-book lending, and the extension of the Public Lending Right Scheme.
“This raises questions both about the future public policy imperative of libraries as they evolve in the 21st Century, and the economic imperative of ensuring that authors receive proper remuneration for their work.
“Today, I am calling for the Government to convene an effective and credible taskforce to explore e-book lending – which should consist of librarians, authors and publishers and be chaired by an independent expert.
“If the Government wants libraries to move into the 21st Century, and wants to protect the value of books, Ed Vaizey needs to act on this now.”
This lead to a response via email to various people that Justin Tomlinson (he is Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Libraries) is seeking Parliamentary time to discuss this issue, in particular the options, challenges and opportunities of ebook lending for libraries. I have some concerns over some of his initial ideas however, which I'm including below.
I am somewhat concerned about some of the proposals Mr Tomlinson is suggesting, as they appear to me to be detrimental to the effective and efficient running of a library service.
"E-books should be borrowed through a physical visit to a library, thus protecting footfall (with provision for those who can’t physically access a library)"
Surely the whole point of an eBook is that it's not tied to a physical item, and since there is no need for library members to come into a library at the moment to borrow an eBook, it is nonsensical to require this. This will not help members, it will hinder them. Secondly, how would the library work out that someone cannot physically access a library? Through some sort of means testing, or a doctors certificate? Would members have to live outside a certain catchment area before being able to borrow electronically. This would inevitably create a two tiered system of members. Footfall does need protecting of course, but this can surely be done instead by taking into account visits to the websites, and statistics based on when books are borrowed electronically. To base future decisions on past practice seems rather foolish. Furthermore, members can already borrow books electronically. I can't see any sensible way of explaining a different access model that doesn't make the library/librarian look foolish and unhelpful. Exactly the opposite of the view that we want to encourage. Finally, the library needs to be seen as innovative and forward looking, embracing technology, rather than working against it. This suggestion would be neither.
My larger concern however is this:
"A small charge for an E-book should be applicable, with the money shared between the publishers and the physical community library"
No. Absolutely not. A library cannot be seen to be charging for access to books, irrespective of the method of delivery. This further leads us into a two tier approach, based on the ability to pay. Not all books are fiction, and this is just going to mean that the people who need them the most will be unable to afford them. Now, you may argue that if someone has an eReader, they can afford the small charge. The cost of these readers are tumbling in price at the moment, and are now priced at the level of being gifted to friends and relations.
Possession of an e-Reader should not be indicative of the ability to pay for books loans. Secondly, the cost of readers is continuing to drop, the number of e-Books is being increased and within a short space of time (certainly no more than a few years) this is going to be a standard mechanism for borrowing books. Once the concept of charging for books is in place, it will be impossible to change it, and the idea of the free library will have gone for good.
I'm sorry to have to say this, but this is an amazingly short sighted view of the future of the library and the provision of books. Publishers get their money from the sale of the book, and by all means have a discussion on that, and how libraries can work well together, but this is a terribly flawed approach, and I'm bitterly disappointed to see it being promoted in this way. Paying to borrow books must be fought at every step of the way.
If libraries embrace the use of eBooks, by robustly promoting them, explaining to members how they are used and by making them freely available, library use will increase. Publishers will see better returns on their investments as library members often purchase the books they have read, or will buy others from the same author. Libraries will slowly begin to shrug off the tag that they are 'all about books', and instead be increasingly seen as a community resource that uses technology and helps members of the community use it as well.
Consequently library usage will increase, not fall. It will fall if people have to pay to borrow books, since they will be more likely to ignore the library service completely and will take the view that they may as well buy the book from Amazon or Smiths in an electronic format. The way to attract a new generation of readers is by encouraging uptake of eBooks; a charge will do exactly the opposite. Librarians should teach encourage and empower members, not block access to an increasing popular reading mechanism.
Mr Tomlinson - I would strongly urge you to reconsider both of these proposals; they are devisive, retrograde and will inevitably result in damage to library services.
To be absolutely fair to Mr Tomlinson, he responded quickly to point out that those ideas are just starting points, rather than anything set down in stone, and he also pointed out that he's keen to consider eBook proposals in more detail. Speaking as a librarian, library user and owner of an eReader (which interestingly Mr Tomlinson confessed he doesn't possess) I'd certainly encourage people to debate the issue either in my comments, or with him directly as he has requested. (Details via the link to his website as provided above.)