by: Janet Steffenhagen
The book-lending business at public libraries used to be a simple affair: Buy books, catalogue them, loan them out and keep them in good repair. But that's all changing with the soaring popularity of ebooks.
While libraries try to provide the same seamless service for ebooks as they do for print copies, they are stymied by an array of rules from publishers that dictate which books will be available in electronic form, how long libraries can hold digital rights to those titles and what borrowing restrictions will apply.
That's confusing for patrons who assume libraries have the same control over ebooks as over print copies, and frustrating for librarians.
Some publishers -including two big ones, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan -don't allow any of their electronic titles into libraries, saying they've not yet found a business model that makes financial sense for them and their authors. Harper Collins, meanwhile, has set a cap of 26 on the number of times its ebooks can be loaned out before the library has to purchase a new licence or forfeit the title.
That's prompted calls for a boycott of Harper Collins and criticisms from those who say the cap is arbitrary and far lower than the number of times a hardcover book can circulate before it's worn out. They fear other publishers may follow suit, punching a hole in library budgets.
These struggles with publishers come at a time when libraries are experiencing surging interest in ebooks.
About 1,800 cardholders with the Vancouver Public Library (VPL) now borrow ebooks, and last month they registered a total of 3,000 such checkouts, said Christina de Castell, the VPL's manager of online information and news. While that's only a tiny fraction of the library's print circulation, it's been growing by about 20 per cent each month this year.
"The use of ebooks at Vancouver Public Library has risen exponentially over the last few months," VPL chief librarian Sandra Singh said in a recent interview. While librarians share the ebook excitement, they know there are still significant issues to be resolved before libraries are able to respond fully to customer demand.
Vancouver offers 5,000 ebook titles through a shared, provincewide service called Library To Go, but publishers have declared that they may be borrowed by only one patron at a time, just like print books. Since not all publishers allow their ebooks into libraries, the selection is limited, with current publications taking priority and few backlist titles available.
The most popular titles feature romance and passion, including Harlequin Romance.
In addition to distribution problems, there are hardware challenges. Library patrons have various ereaders with different downloading protocols -the Kobo, the Sony Reader, the Amazon Kindle as well as tablets and iPads, all of which are subject to upgrades. Although bookseller Amazon does not allow the Kindle ereader to download library books in Canada, it recently relaxed that policy in the U.S. and there's hope its new approach will eventually migrate here.
Libraries try to help book lovers with their assorted ereaders, and de Castell said the inquiries are numerous, especially since first-time borrowing tends to be complicated. Libraries are offering courses in how to find, check out and borrow ebooks, with the next one at VPL slated for today. They also have staff available to help with download protocols.
"The first time, it took me about an hour from getting the ereader out of the box to getting a library book [loaded]," de Castell said. "The second time, it's a lot easier, and once it's routine, it's really easy. But it is difficult that first time. You have to be pretty persistent."
Library patron Einat Stojicevic agreed, but said the technical support from the library was amazing and quickly turned her into an ebook devotee. "I love physical books [and] I'm an English major so this was a huge change of life for me. My friend actually said to me 'so, are you going to curl up with a good tablet tonight?'"
But she said she's hooked, and so are her two children and her husband. All voracious readers, they no longer have to pack a suitcase full of books when they go away on holidays and there are no more late fees. When the three-week lending period expires, ebooks simply disappear.
For now, Stojicevic said she's satisfied with the number of titles available, and pleased with the amount of Canadian content. "They do have a lot of books," she said. "I'm still waiting for Philippa Gregory but probably her publishing company won't give up the rights."
A few public libraries offer ereaders on loan. North Vancouver libraries, for example, have Kobos and Kindles available for patrons and plan to offer the Sony Reader later this year.
The West Vancouver library became the first in Canada to loan Kindles last year and now has 11 in circulation, with waiting lists hitting 100. The Kindles are preloaded with 50 books but can't access other library books.
West Vancouver also has an ereader "petting zoo" where patrons can experiment with the various models before making a purchase, said Jenny Benedict, director of library services, noting many were asking the library for advice about which device they should purchase. West Vancouver also created a YouTube video to guide them through ebook borrowing.
Ebook circulation in West Vancouver has almost doubled since December, Benedict said, with the new format appealing to established clients and drawing new ones, especially people who travel a lot or have long commutes.
But like her counterparts at VPL, she longs for simplicity and wishes publishers would develop one set of parameters for ebook lending that would allow library users easy access to a variety of titles. She also hopes libraries will one day be able to choose their ebooks based on community interests, just as they do with their print collections.
"What's happening now is our customers are coming to us with expectations [but] it's kind of out of our control," she said. "It's going to take more time to get it where we want it to be. But the good news is we're having those conversations and ... the publishing field is very open to hearing our feedback."
De Castell said publishers need to understand that the people who use libraries are also people who buy books. "They are part of a community of book lovers, and I think it's easy for publishers to forget that. Selling to libraries doesn't mean losing sales. It means promoting your authors to a whole group of people who love books."
The availability of ebooks in libraries would also reduce ebook piracy, she suggested.
from: Vancouver Sun