Well, I guess at times like this libraries know who their friends are, and the Publishers Association is apparently not one of them. Despite the obvious success that ebooks have been in public libraries, and the potential they have for providing access to a whole range of people who are otherwise excluded from the service, the Publishers Association has effectively sounded the death knell for ebooks in libraries, if not libraries themselves. Today they announced that:
Under the new scheme, library users would have to come onto the library’s physical premises to download an e-book at a computer terminal onto a mobile device, rather than downloading the book remotely. The scheme would also see the fee paid by a library to buy a book covering the right to loan one copy to one individual at any given time, and would require “robust and secure geographical-based membership” in place at the library service doing the lending.
That’s right, they would have to visit the library to take advantage of ebooks. Madness does not even begin to cover it.
Let me explain why I feel this is bad for not only users but the library service as a whole. The requirement to download an ebook from a device in a library would mean that library services across the country would need to spend money on equipment to be placed in a sizeable proportion (if not all) of their branch libraries. Considering that councils are facing a 30% cut in funding and that libraries are in line for the bulk of the cuts, can anyone really see libraries paying out for equipment to be placed in libraries? Of course not. It could cost thousands of pounds to provide such a service. And, with these cuts in the offing, it will be no surprise at all if libraries decide they aren’t going to offer ebooks at all. Why should they when the costs for providing such a service have been driven up by this decision?
But why is it so bad to cut the delivery of ebooks? Because it is cost effective and provides a service to many people who do not currently use the service. Cost effective because it essentially allows 24/7 hour opening without the need to pay staffing or building costs. Something that is absolutely essential in the 21st century, and even more so given that the impending cuts are likely to affect library opening hours. Furthermore the service itself makes library books more obtainable for those who are housebound, visually impaired (ebooks have the advantage of choosing a font size) or even just simply living in remote areas of the country, far away from their local library. Previous studies have already demonstrated how well received ebooks have been by the elderly, meeting their needs in a way in which the current service does not. Not only does this service potentially improve library access for the most vulnerable, it also reconnects with users who view the library service as outdated and out of touch with their needs.
Essentially, here is a service that has increased library use and has the potential to deliver a library service fit for the twentieth century. Instead of building on it, we are going to see it killed off. An avenue for library’s to grow and develop has essentially been roadblocked by the publishers. But there is something else I fear from this development.
One wonders how much of an influence booksellers have had on this decision. I would not be surprised at all if some leading booksellers were contemplating offering their own subscription service for ebooks. If they were to do so, it would call into question the need for libraries to do the same, especially if they can only do so by making people visit the library. Furthermore, with cost-cutting on the agenda, and retailers offering a service that could and should be provided by libraries, who would be surprised if the private sector were asked to take over public libraries? After all, if they are going to offer the lending of ebooks, what’s to stop them using the library service as a supplement to this service? It would certainly address some of the council’s budgetary cuts and reduce a service that they wrongly believe is ‘failing’ (despite all the evidence to the contrary).
I hope this does not prove to be the thin end of the wedge, but I have real worries for the library service when they are effectively prevented from providing a service that is proving popular with users and bringing people back to the library service. If the Publishers Association really do care about libraries, I strongly suggest they reconsider their decision and work with libraries to ensure this service can continue. There are other alternatives than simply putting libraries in a position where they have to pull the plug.
At present, it looks like ebooks in libraries have been a short, yet highly successful, experiment. That is something that should cause concern for every single library user and campaigner not only in the UK, but across the world.