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The Challenging Landscape of Ebooks in Libraries
Posted On July 9, 2012
The overall growth in digital content of all kinds, and in particular, the growing importance and acceptance of ebooks, has clearly presented great opportunities for libraries, as well as plenty of challenges. Many libraries are coping with decreasing budgets while at the same time experiencing increased demand for content and services. Challenges include limited availability of ebooks from publishers, increasing demands for tech support with ebook readers and mobile devices, cumbersome borrowing processes, and minimal discoverability of ebook content. Two recent reports shed some light on the current situation, providing interesting statistics and perspectives.

Pew Report on Libraries, Patrons, and Ebooks

On June 22, 2012, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project released the Report, “Libraries, Patrons, and E-books,” as part of a series of research activities funded by a $1.4 million 3-year grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to study the role of libraries in users’ lives and in their communities. The research is being done in several stages.

First, a short report by Pew in January 2012 indicated that tablet and ebook reader ownership nearly doubled over the holidays. Overall, 29% of U.S. adults own at least one of these devices. Then in April, Pew issued its report called “The Rise of E-reading,” which indicated that 21% of Americans had read an ebook, though print books still dominated the world of book readers. A majority of print readers (54%) and readers of ebooks (61%) prefer to purchase their own copies of these books, while 61% of audiobook listeners prefer to borrow their audiobooks. At that time, just 12% of those searching for an ebook would start at a library—75% would start at an online bookstore or website.

The new June report focuses on library patrons and examines the roles that libraries play in the shifting digital terrain as e-reading, tablet computers, and ebook readers become more popular. The number of public libraries that offer ebooks has doubled in the past 5 years (76% now compared with 38%), and 39% also lend out e-readers. Despite this, it seems most people are unaware of this benefit. The report notes, “We asked all those ages 16 and older if they know whether they can borrow ebooks from their library and 62% said they did not know if their library offered that service. Some 22% say they know that their library does lend out ebooks, and 14% say they know their library does not lend out ebooks.”

It looks like there’s a lot of room for promotional and marketing activities. But librarians are also leery of marketing services that they don’t feel adequately address their patrons’ needs and demands—see the above list of challenges.

Many of those who presumably might have an interest in knowing about the availability of free library loans of ebooks are not sure about the situation at their local library. According to the Pew report:

  • 58% of all library cardholders say they do not know if their library provides ebook lending services
  • 53% of all tablet computer owners say they do not know if their library lends ebooks
  • 48% of all owners of ebook reading devices such as Kindles and NOOKs say they do not know if their library lends ebooks
  • 47% of all those who read an ebook in the past year say they do not know if their library lends ebooks

“It was a genuine surprise to see these data, especially after all of the attention that has been paid to the tension between libraries and major book publishers about whether many of the most popular books should be available for lending by libraries,” noted Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project. “Ebook borrowing is gaining a foothold in the library world and will likely grow much more in the future as more people become aware of it. That might add more pressure to the situation—or prompt the parties to come up with a solution.”

Ebook borrowers in the Pew survey also reported at least occasional difficulties:

  • 56% of ebook borrowers from libraries say that at one point or another they had tried to borrow a particular book and found that the library did not carry it
  • 52% of ebook borrowers say that at one point or another they discovered there was a waiting list to borrow the book
  • 18% of ebook borrowers say that at one point or another they found that an ebook they were interested in was not compatible with the e-reading device they were using

ALA Report

ALA and the Information Policy & Access Center (University of Maryland) issued a complementary report on June 19, 2012, which confirms the ebook statistics of the Pew report and provides a broader perspective on library funding: “Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study, 2011-2012.”

The study’s public library survey was completed between September 2011 and November 2011. The survey was completed by 7,252 U.S. public libraries of all sizes, which provided a response rate of 82%. Questionnaires also were sent to the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA) and anecdotal responses were collected from interviews with library staff in Georgia and Idaho.

Key Findings

  • 62% of libraries report that they are the only source of free internet access in their communities
  • 91% of public libraries provide free Wi-Fi, and 74% of libraries report use of Wi-Fi increased in 2011
  • 76% of libraries offer access to ebooks, an increase of 9% from last year; 39% of libraries provide e-readers for checkout by patrons. (View the ebook map to see how your state stacks up)
  • Ebooks are available from 92% of urban libraries, compared to 65% of rural libraries
  • 57% of libraries report flat or decreased operating budgets in FY2011
  • For the third year in a row, 40% of state libraries report decreased state funding for public libraries

As part of the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy’s work with the Digital Content and Libraries Working Group, several member leaders have requested it develop and distribute communications resources that will support local libraries around digital content issues. On July 3, 2012, OITP released the first of these documents, a backgrounder that shares some highlights from the newest Pew report along with some possible messaging and local angles for libraries to use in leveraging this new research with local media and decision makers.

Rainie discussed the report and related research at the ALA Annual Conference (June 20-26, 2012), and is a featured presenter as part of the ALA Virtual Conference July 18 and 19.

IMLS Grant to Identify Library Ebook Strategies

Also announced on June 22, 2012, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) is giving a $99,957 grant to OCLC for “The Big Shift: Advancing Public Library Participation in Our Digital Future.” The purpose of the grant is to more fully understand the challenges that U.S. public libraries face in providing ebook content to borrowers. The press release cites the findings in the Pew and ALA reports.

This award builds on an IMLS-supported public library discussion hosted by Martin Gomez at the Los Angeles Public Library in November 2011. Gomez (University of Southern California) and Brian Bannon (Chicago Public Library) will also provide advice on the program’s grant activities, which will be closely coordinated with ALA’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group, chaired by Sari Feldman (Cuyahoga County Public Library) and Robert Wolven (Columbia University).

Encouraging Developments

Despite all the challenges and disturbing statistics about lack of public awareness of ebook lending, there have been some encouraging developments that ought to give librarians a boost.

Penguin Group (USA), The New York Public Library, and 3M announced a pilot project that will make Penguin eBooks available to patrons of both The New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library. The pilot program will begin in August and, if successful, could be rolled out across the U.S. Under the initial phase of the pilot, ebooks will be made available to libraries for one year with renewable terms. Library patrons will be able to access ebooks remotely using public-library compatible reading devices. Titles will be available for lending 6 months after initial publication.

Library Journal reported that the San Mateo-based Califa Group, which is the largest library network in California, has made major strides in its project to create an ebook ownership model along the same lines as the Douglas County Libraries (DCL) in Colorado. It is also on the verge of striking a deal with Smashwords for outright ownership of its top-selling titles, which will also include a self-publishing option for patrons. Califa will reportedly be able to purchase about 10,000 of the company’s top titles for about $3 a title. Contra Costa County Library has agreed to be a pilot library in the fall.

The lending model being developed by DCL and Califa is exciting and will be closely watched by other libraries. 

Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.

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