Hard Choices: Libraries Face Major Challenges in Meeting Reader eLending Demand
01 April 2020
New research from Australia has explored how the way eBooks are offered to libraries affect their decisions over what to offer borrowers.
Led by Associate Professor Rebecca Giblin of the University of Melbourne law school as part of the international eLending Project (elendingproject.org), this builds on previous work that has underlined the restrictions, inconsistencies and lack of adaptation to demand that characterises the library eBook market, both in Australia and worldwide.
The new research is based on a survey of libraries across Australia. The researchers sought to understand how publisher licensing practices were impacting library decisions about which ebooks to add to their collections, as well as the trade-offs they were making in balancing scarce resources with their communities’ diverse needs.
It finds that the prices and licence terms set by publishers are having real impacts on the books that get added to public library collections – and thus the authors who get read and paid for library uses.
A Flawed Market
Previous work from the library eLending project have identified a series of challenges associated with the library eLending market on the side of suppliers. Not all ebooks are made available for lending (although availability is better in some countries than others). Different publishers take different approaches. Increasingly, they are adopting ‘metered’ (only a certain number of loans are possible) or ‘exploding’ licences (which see the library lose access to a book after a set time, regardless of how many times it has been borrowed. The eLending Project’s previous work had also shown that the licence type and price charged do not necessarily reflect likely demand, with older books just as likely to be made available at high prices and on exploding licenses as the newest ones. But what does this mean for libraries?
As the new research shows, it is not the conditions offered by publishers and platforms, but rather patron demand that is the main driver of decision-making. In order to meet that demand, libraries are signing up for multiple platforms (with multiple platform fees), and buying access to individual books on less-than-favourable terms. Libraries reported that they often felt they had no choice but to agree to unreasonable prices or restrictions for in-demand books. As one put it, ‘Remaining relevant means that we are a slave to demand driven purchasing. (Don’t tell the publisher.)’ But that then means they have less resources to fulfil their other missions, including collection development and supporting local and emerging writers.
In this, they are not helped necessarily by the lack of information received from platforms, which tend to be readier to share numbers on waiting lists rather than on use, potentially in order to encourage more sales. This makes it difficult for libraries even to calculate costs per loan, and many libraries reported not having the skills or resources to do so.
A Way Forwards?
Some of the potential improvements to the situation already appeared in the previous work, notably greater consistency in offer from one platform to the next, and an approach to licensing and pricing that reflects likely demand for books.
The new research identified further suggestions, including most importantly, the need for libraries to have a choice between licensing models, including pay-per-loan.
This would help libraries to promote more local content, in particular from new and emerging authors, and so both ensure deeper and more balanced collections and continue libraries’ role as a supporter of literary diversity.
It could also make it easier for libraries to serve minority groups by buying books that may be of less interest to the rest of the population. This would help realise the potential of eBooks as a means of giving access to a much wider range of content that better meets the needs of all readers.
There are many powerful lessons to be taken from this work, many of which may be familiar to libraries in other countries.
Despite increasing spending – indeed, library eLending is one of the rare growth areas in the wider eBook market – libraries and their users are not necessarily seeing the benefits, and indeed are struggling to fulfil traditional missions to offer wide, deep collections that respond to the needs of all members of the community while helping new writers find an audience.
This research underlines, again, the need for serious reflection on the way the library eLending market operates, in the interests of authors and readers like.
You can download the full research report as a pdf.