– Digital Lending in Libraries – a New Solution?

I love libraries!

I have only recently become reacquainted with libraries and now my love of them is stronger than ever.  I enjoy seeing how many libraries are reinventing themselves and becoming a hub for their local community. They offer so much more these days than just lending of books. They offer author events, book clubs, story time for babies and children, toy libraries, meeting rooms, dedicated spaces and terminals for students, ebook and audio book lending, places to sit and read, or sit and work, or sit and talk. Oh, and books, magazines, DVDs, CDs. Of course not ALL libraries are able to offer all these services, but they certainly offer more than just the opportunity to borrow books.

My father was a prolific reader and in my teens I remember piles of library books in the family room and beside his bed. I would often accompany him on his weekly visits to stock up on my own books and he introduced me to many of his favourite authors.

When I left home I left libraries behind as well. I’m not sure why, but perhaps because like many young people I moved often and never really connected enough to an area to get to know my local library. It was actually ebooks that led me back to libraries.

I was preparing a talk on DRM and realised that I had absolutely no idea how ebook lending worked and wanted to get my mind around it. I was lucky in that my local library did have ebooks and audio books but despite living in the locality for 14 years I wasn’t a member. Fancy that. A book lover who never visited a library.  After visiting the library and becoming a member (and discovering all the other delights it offered) I promptly went home and downloaded several ebooks and audio books. I became converted to the joys of ebook lending – although somewhat frustrated at the lack of new releases and the way results were displayed by OverDrive (the aggregator and company that supplies the platform to libraries).  But that’s another story.  Basically ebooks are there, they are free, they are a GREAT way to experience ebooks and I think it’s a great service.

It was interesting today to attend one of the Australian Publishers Association and Copyright Agency Limited International Digital Chat Series and hear from Stephanie Duncan who is the Digital Media Director of Bloomsbury Publishing in the UK. Stephanie was talking today to about 60 attendees of the session who included publishers and librarians and the name of the talk was ‘Digital Lending in Libraries: Is it worth the risk for publishers?’

She was here to discuss their Public Library Online project  and no doubt to hopefully sign up a number of local libraries and publishers to follow Allen & Unwin into the project!

“Public libraries are attended more frequently and by more people than any other cultural and sporting venue”. Sue Hutley, Executive Director, ALIA (Australian Library and Information Association)

Starting out her talk Stephanie presented some views for and against digital content in libraries.

No, Digital content is too high a risk

  • With physical books members need to visit the actual library to borrow books. While a visit is necessary to obtain a library membership, with digital you can then log on in bed.
  • If people can borrow books for free, then they will stop buying books.
  • Print books wear out, and therefore libraries then need to purchase another copy from a publisher. Digital copies don’t wear out. (Note: Stephanie did point out that with technology changes it is inevitable that digital copies may in time need to be resupplied)

Yes, Digital content is worth the risk (these are Stephanie’s personal opinions and those of Bloomsbury)

  • Libraries are essential to a literate society
  • Libraries create ebook readers who then go on to purchase ebooks
  • Libraries cater to all and therefore provide an opportunity for discover new things, whether that be ebooks or new formats.

Different Library Lending Models


  • DRM, 1 copy, 1 loan, timed expiry
  • Robust and secure geographical membership

Streaming (What Bloomsbury adopted for their Public Library Online)

  • Online access to content, no downloads
  • Concurrent user and/or site licence
  • DRM to suppress or allow people to copy/paste/print/share

Stephanie made the point that libraries are already set up for this, so easy for them to adopt. It avoids the technical support issues that can be associated with downloading to a computer or device. Streaming may not, for some people, be a way to read a whole book but users are more likely to then come in to borrow the title, download the ebook, or purchase from a bookseller. This ALL means income for the publisher. OR perhaps they just walk away once they’ve sampled online but this wasn’t raised!

Patron Driven Acquisition

  • Full catalogue available with a license paid on usage.

Stephanie said that this is tricky for libraries to manage as they don’t have a clear idea what their budget for usage will be.

Note: 7 April 2011

Peter Brantley, Director of the BookServer Project at the Internet Archive, a not for profit digital library and  Co-founder of the Open Book Alliance made the point to me that there are several other possible lending models that libraries could use. These could include Metered (Pay Per View); Unlimited for an initial period and then metered; number-of-loan limited (as per the Harper Collins approach); user-based rental (where libraries act as the
mediator, like a video rental store). And no doubt other models as well.  Thanks Peter!

Statistics & Figures

Stephanie had some interesting stats and facts from OverDrive that indicate that people use online visits to a library for R&D on a title, that libraries drive ‘word of mouth’ sales.

2009 OverDrive Stats

  • 401m various download pages
  • 20% of them downloaded the title
  • 80% who didn’t download (perhaps the title was not available) STILL viewed that page
  • 13 pages per visitor on average were viewed indicating each visitor takes time to look through online
  • 43% said they would buy the title viewed if it was not available.

So what is Bloomsbury’s Public Library Online

Firstly it is an alternative to the OverDrive solution currently being offered to libraries. It was mentioned that the OverDrive platform costs more than the books to libraries – the actual platform is a big cost and then there is the cost of books. While OverDrive offers single use of an ebooks, Public Library Online offers multiple users at one time who can then discuss the book.

  • 24/7 uncapped online access
  • Publishers grow range of themed digital bookshelves. Some of the Publishers on board so far are Allen & Unwin, Alma BooksCanongate,  Faber,  Mercier Press,  Quercus.
  • Built on a goal shared by publishers and librarians – to support literacy.
  • It’s secure, uncapped, easy to use, affordable to libraries (charged on basis of $150 per 100,000 populations served, per annum), revenue generating (for publishers and authors), annual subscriptions for libraries, allowing them to budget.
  • There are no set up costs to libraries, it reduces costs for Librarian as it is low relative cost to the licensing fees from OverDrive and then the book costs.
  • Libraries already have terminals, and a user just requires access to the web.
  • 8.9m people in the UK using it and they have a 100% renewal. Libraries are happy and increasing their shelves.
  • Bloomsbury passes on 70% of revenue to the publisher. Of the remaining 30% they use 20% to maintain and develop the site, and keep 10% as sales commission. Authors have an agreed royalty for digital sales so since each ‘bookshelf’ contains 10 titles there is a split between those 10 authors (or however many authors) for the digital royalty.
  • There may be an opportunity for self-published authors IF they have 10 books available of interest to fill a ‘shelf’.

An attendee asked what a ‘bookshelf’ was and Stephanie explained that they were recreating a library or bookshop, a group of ten ‘themed’ books. Some of the themes could be Reading Group books, Thrillers, Biography, Fantasy and so on.

Now I know I’m starting to sound like a blogger who is really a mouthpiece for Bloomsbury and the Public Library Online project! So let me state right now that the online model of consuming books doesn’t much work for me. Yes I’d be prepared to ‘sample’ content that way, and I do, however if it can’t be downloaded them I’m unlikely to go much further. Although Stephanie makes the point that users will then go into the library or buy the book from a bookshop I’m not so certain. I think if a title is not available for download I MAY be inclined to just find one that is. Yes, as a member it’s free, and for many people the ‘free-factor’ will overcome the ‘inconvenience-factor’ but speaking for myself I’m more likely to turn somewhere else and download content to my iPad so I can curl up in bed to read. Currently it is flash enabled and YES, I’ve tested it on my iPhone and NO because of that it won’t work. However ‘soon’ they will be doing in HTML5 and then I should be able to curl on up and then I am more likely to see and enjoy the benefit. Of course, if I had an android phone then in theory I should be able to do that already!

Libraries and Publisher Partner Opportunities

Here are some of the opportunities that Stephanie sees for Publishers and Libraries to work together:

  • 2012 is the National Year of Reading (Australia’s first, but very popular overseas)
  • Libraries can use Skype to hold author events in their libraries. Free!
  • Publishers can partner with libraries to produce sustained event programs in libraries.
  • Libraries are very active with social media and can help promote authors.
  • Online Library resources provide a gateway to promote new and establish authors.

Stephanie also mentioned about the huge opportunities available for subscription models. To me, this has always been a huge gap in the ebook market. I know what has held us back has been the technology available to do this, but I’d happily pay a monthly fee to be able to access all the books I wanted from a publisher catalogue. Stephanie said with mobiles they have already got a monthly bill in place, and phone companies have been using ‘add-on’ products – like music –  to that basic cost of phone + calls/services.  This is surely in our future, and I hope it’s the near future.


I think Public Library Online does present a reasonable offering for libraries and I hope enough of them are willing to experiment for the user to be able to explore ebooks from the comfort of their home. For publishers it seems as though they really don’t have much to lose and for those with worldwide rights, seeing the success of this project in the UK should give them good additional income. If they only have ANZ rights then they may sit back for a while and watch this unfold. Anything that will introduce the public to the joys of digital content is good in my mind. However, if they also gave me a link to purchase the ebook then the product would have a greater benefit to me as a dedicated ebook reader.

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