Blog Post

Yeah, e-books are great — but libraries are in a tough spot

New reports from the American Libraries Association and Pew Internet and American Life Project reveal that despite the increasing number of e-books available to library patrons, libraries themselves face big challenges in weathering the transition.

Some findings from the reports:

More digital demand, less funding

Over 75 percent of libraries now offer e-books, up from 67.2 percent last year, the ALA reports. Thirty-nine percent also lend out e-readers. Libraries are also creating mobile versions of their websites (14 percent) and releasing smartphone apps (7 percent).

Pew reports that 12 percent of Americans ages 16 and older who read e-books have borrowed an e-book from a library in the past year.

At the same time, more than 40 percent of states have reported decreased public library funding for three years in a row.

Many patrons are still oblivious

Pew asked adults ages 16 and over whether they knew if they could borrow e-books from their library. Sixty-two percent weren’t sure. In addition, 48 percent of e-reader owners (Kindles and Nooks) didn’t know if their library lends e-books, and 47 percent of people who read an e-book in the past year didn’t know.

That could actually be a good thing since libraries are already struggling to keep up with the demand from patrons who do know about their e-books. “I am concerned that demand so far outstrips the availability in our community that I will create too many dissatisfied users with more publicity and no more funds or availability of titles,” one library director told Pew.

Librarians spend more time providing tech support

Pew says librarians are “anxious about the new set of demands on them to learn about the operations of new gadgets, to master every new web application, and to de-bug every glitch on a digital device.” A “notable portion” say they are “self-taught techies” in the absence of serious staff training.

One librarian told Pew, “We spend a significant part of our day explaining how to get library books onto e-book readers.” Another noted “Many of our older patrons received electronic devices as gifts over the past two years. This group of library users asks for lots of help with their devices, from plugging them in to turning them on to trying to make them interface with the e-book portion of the library website.”

Discoverability is a challenge here, too

Browsing libraries’ e-book offerings is difficult. Many libraries are now using digital distributor OverDrive as their e-book provider and it seems the platform’s browsing capabilities simply aren’t stacking up. “Many patrons” use a workaround like this one: “I will sometimes go to Amazon to find titles I might like, then search them in OverDrive, since Amazon’s interface is so much more reader friendly.”

One librarian called the process of checking out an e-book from a library and then downloading it onto a device “a cumbersome, nonsensical, multi-part process in which we lose too many people along the way.” Both patrons and librarians “longed for e-book titles to be integrated into the main library catalog in order to streamline the process.”

Publishers don’t make enough e-books available

Big-six publishers vary in their e-book library strategies, but most limit e-book borrowing in some way (more details here). One librarian noted, “Money is not the major obstacle for us; the major obstacle is the lack of publishers and titles in OverDrive. We are purchasing Nook devices and loading them with bestsellers to add to our OverDrive titles.”

Molly Raphael, president of the ALA, responded to the Pew report with the following statement: “Libraries cannot lend what they cannot obtain. ALA and others continue to call on publishers to make their e-books available to libraries at fair prices and terms.”

What can be done?

The Pew and ALA reports reflect excitement but also trepidation in the ways that the e-book revolution is playing out in libraries. Pew reports that 69 percent of Americans say the library is important to them and their family, but as libraries face major funding cuts, states, cities and patrons will face tough choices. If the majority of Americans think libraries are important, it seems to me that we’ll need to express our support not just through good wishes but through campaigning to public officials and fundraising for our local libraries. Right now the New York Public Library, already one of the largest and most well-funded in the country, faces $43 million in budget cuts. If those cuts aren’t reversed, the library’s fiscal year 2013 budget would be 44 percent lower than it was in 2008.

It also seems to me that there is a role for technology companies to play here. Companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Apple should support local libraries not just because they’re good for communities but because they introduce patrons to new technologies and help them become paying customers. In fact, Pew finds that library card holders read more books in general, own more technology and are more likely to say they plan to purchase an e-reader or a tablet. In addition, most e-book readers prefer to buy their e-books rather than borrowing them (61 percent) and they use libraries as a place to discover new books. So as libraries face the challenge of providing tech support and helping patrons use their new e-readers, retailers could also play a bigger role by providing more instructions, information and tech support to library patrons. Perhaps they could even take the lead in running library workshops on how to use the new technologies.

Image courtesy of Flickr / melanzane1013

9 Responses to “Yeah, e-books are great — but libraries are in a tough spot”

  1. Most ebook readers at my library (Columbus, OH) did not know that they could ‘return’ the ebook once they had finished reading it…rather than wait for the lending time to expire.

    • Darcy Kliphuis

      Char do they expire and return themselves on the date expired or do i have to manually return it cause i have spent hours trying to figure out how to return a book on my kindle fire and its not showing up any option.

  2. RalphF

    I hate to say it, but the library e-book loaning idea is a flawed premise in the first place. It is unsustainable because as soon as the kinks are worked out, and the technology/method is standardized, there will be no need for libraries at all. We will all just go online and “borrow” from an online virtual Library of Congress. Physical libraries, to the extent they exist at all, would be simply providers of free public bandwidth. In fact, that might be the next calling for the library infrastructure we’ve already built (i.e., a place to sit and get bandwidth).

    P.S. I’m not talking immediately, but this is the future by 2020 in my humble opinion.

  3. Laura,

    Nice article, but you’re missing a couple of angles here, both of which add up to more bad news for libraries in the future: the legal angle, which gives publishers all of the power in determining what libraries may e-lend, and the fact that the private sector is now competing with libraries in e-lending, starting with Amazon Kindle Owners Lending Library. See my articles and for more details.

  4. One issue is the libraries themselves. We are small publisher and distribute our ebooks to Amazon, B&N, and Apple ourselves. This accounts for 95% of the market. We occassionally even do Kobo. However, Overdrive and Libraries only work with distributors, not directly with small publishers. Yeah, your article talks about the big six, but if libraries were more flexible in their acquisitions, they would see small publishers flock, which would then put pressure on the larger publishers. Both libraries and Overdrive need to lower barriers, not increase them. Neither are easy to work with.

  5. Integration with library catalogs is coming. Polaris Library Systems has announced that it has reached agreement with some of the e-book vendors to allow the electronic holdings to be searchable in the main catalog software. It is supposed to be out later this year.

  6. Justin Adams

    I have a degree in electrical engineering, and it took me several hours to figure out how to rent one OverDrive book from my Ypsilanti, MI library. It requires logins on disparate systems…there is no simple way to get the ebooks on iPads and iPhones, etc. I believe this is all intentional, because if renting e-books was too easy, a la Netflix, sales of hardcover and e-books would go down. So, I do think the job of librarians is going to change over time, just like the job that publishers do is changing, but if they had well written software, they wouldn’t be glorified tech support.

    • Nicole

      I actually don’t think that the ebook borrowing process is difficult at all when using mobile devices. One needs only to get an ADE (adobe digital editions) log in to use the overdrive app. It’s quick and painless to get that an just key that into the Overdrive app for iOS or Android. Once that’s done, it need not be repeated. Then, when one is browsing for books (I keep my library info saved anyway), it’s pretty easy to pick a book and send it to an Overdrive app. The process is simpler, of course, when borrowing Kindle books because one does not need the overdrive app or ADE. Even still, neither process is difficult in my opinion.

    • I have little sympathy for you Justin as my 8 year old god daughter was able to accomplish in about ten minutes what it took you hours to do.

      On to other things however…Publishers are intentionally making it hard on libraries because they want them to not exist. One of the CEO’s at one of the big six publishers admitted he could not care less about the American library system and that it had been a thorn in the publishing industries side for 150 years now. Needless to say there is no help coming from that direction.

      What will help is consumers contacting publishers and letting them know if they can’t find their books and brands in their local libraries then they won’t be shopping with those publishers no matter what. We the people will make this decision and our libraries will stand or fall by it.

      HarperCollins and Penguin are two of the worst of the big publishers who are preventing libraries from doing their primary job in the curating and collecting of interesting content for their communities which books in an electronic should make so much more easy and economic…except when old world publishers determined to maintain old world business models impede progress.

      Let me give you an example. The aforementioned library in NY has a trial deal with Penguin where they get an ebook at cost and can lend it for a year before the ebook expires. How is this acceptable to anyone who is spending our tax money? As a tax payer, I expect content my government purchases to be available from that point on unless something occurs to damage said content. Since it would be extremely difficult to destroy a data file in a protected environment, I expect said content to be available from that point on…..not held hostage by some company who is more interested in making money off something for decades and even centuries. When I make something at work, I get paid for it then and there. What I don’t do is keep getting paid for it year after year and I certainly don’t respect Penguin for pushing this model on the library system.

      I have already written all the authors I read who are signed with Penguin and let them know that I will not be reading their works published through Penguin until the company starts treating libraries like any other customer…and I as a customer would never buy and time limited, expiring ebook!