e-Lending has opened up significant opportunities for public libraries, but unregulated licensing arrangements are a headache for many, according to a report.
“Our results show that Australian libraries are deeply committed to e-lending as a way of better serving their readers, but that there are real problems with the way in which the market is currently working,” the report says.
The report by researchers from RMIT, the University of Melbourne and Sydney University aggregates perspectives on e-lending arising from a national 2018 survey of Australian public libraries.
It found that existing e-lending arrangements are forcing libraries into inefficiencies, including having to adopt multiple platforms and spending money on books with low circulation.
Harsh licence terms and high prices attached to lower-demand content are also acting as a disincentive for them to include less popular material in their collections.
Libraries also reported that fees for the platforms they use to manage their ebooks are too high.
The study says that libraries have always been able to buy and lend physical books without requiring publishers’ permission, but the purchase and loan of e-books is another kettle of fish.
At present publishers have complete discretion on how libraries access titles for e-lending and even whether a title can be published at all.
Current licence options include ‘limited licences’ which need to be repurchased after a particular time; ‘exploding licences’ where books are deleted after a period of time even if they have never been accessed, and per-loan pricing, where libraries only pay for e-books when they were lent out.
Of all the pricing models, the study found per loan pricing was the most appealing, with libraries saying it meant they could hold more ‘risky’ titles with low demand. It also benefited smaller populations, such as rural libraries, and smaller groups within populations, like specific language groups.
However, the downside to the model was that libraries could end up paying a lot for popular items, or that a large percentage of funds would go on a single genre or very similar titles, resulting in poorly curated and balanced collections.
‘Pincered at the intersection of market and public interests’
The researchers say the e-lending situation is affecting the ability of libraries to fulfil other policy goals including providing non-commercial public spaces, fostering digital literacies, providing public information, and accommodating new creative and practical activities.
“The lending of ebooks (‘e-lending’) has great potential to further these missions. It can help reach otherwise disenfranchised readers, including rural populations, shift workers, and those with vision and mobility impairments,” the researchers say.
“And it has potential also to free valuable physical space for other activities. But with e-lending, libraries find themselves pincered at the intersection of market and public interests.”
The study found nationwide spending on e-lending is considerable and growing.
It found a wide range in what is being spent by the nation’s libraries, from as little as $1500 for a small country library to larger libraries and consortia spending over a million dollars per annum.
Based on responses from 99 libraries the total annual spend on e-lending reported was some $11,770,000.
Participating libraries also varied in their experiences of e-lending, with some introducing e-lending as early as 2003 and others adopting it as recently as 2018. Peak takeup of e-lending occurred around 2011.
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