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There’s an interesting article in Publishers’ Weekly on e-book lending by public libraries in the USA. It focuses on the work of the American Library Association’s Digital Content Working Group, and draws attention to some of the critical issues being explored by the group. These include, the number of platforms that need to be used, the pricing policies for e-books, and the impact of the cost of e-books on the other formats in the collections.

It’s true that e-book lending has gone up in the USA, with Overdrive reporting that 33 libraries in the USA had e-book loans of more than one million – but even that is a relatively small proportion of the total loans. In Sweden, e-book loans are only about 1 or 2 per cent of total loans, so one is left with the question, Is it worth the bother?

In Sweden, public libraries are required by law to make available materials in whatever format they appear, so offering e-books is not negotiable. The law could be ignored in this respect of course, on the grounds that no resources are provided to enable the law to be met, but Sweden is a law-abiding country, so this is unlikely.

In the USA, however, there is no such requirement and it is mainly the librarians’ wish to satisfy as much of the demand from their communities as possible, within the limited resources. In these circumstances, the question is valid. And some questions need to be asked to justify an appropriate policy. For example, are those who download e-books from the library site new users? Do those who borrow e-books use the library for other purposes? Are e-book users also library visitors, or do they never visit the library?

By definition, anyone who borrows e-books can afford at least the basic technology of a smart phone, and most probably have access to a tablet computer or a laptop, so they will be no means be the poorer section of the community. So how about a bit of lateral thinking: the libraries collectively do a deal with, say, Amazon for Kindle Unlimited, and with Scribd, to provide access to these services through the library Website and say to users: We aren’t going to lend e-books, but: sign up to Kindle Unlimited or Scribd and we’ll pay half the annual subscription. That might well turn out to be a great deal cheaper than buying licenses to use e-books. True – users won’t get access to most of the newly published books, but that would reduce the demand for such a service further, as, in all probability, only the enthusiastic reader would sign up.

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