It's the debate that just won't go away. The issue over how libraries should loan e-books is generating noise on both sides of the pond, with no signs of agreement or let up. In the US HarperCollins got into hot water for attempting to restrict the 'life-time' of an e-book; while in the UK last year's action by the Publishers Association to adopt a restrictive 'baseline' position on e-book lending, led to uproar among librarians.
I'm not sure I blame them. E-book lending is a fast-growing library service. In fact, given everything else that is happening around libraries right now, it is probably the only bit growing. OverDrive and Bloomsbury's Public Library Online seem like enthusiastic partners, offering options that allow librarians to reach-out to their communities in new ways.
It should be a win-win. Publishers have happy library clients and a ready buyer for their books (even those that don't meet with universal customer approval), while libraries can push reading beyond its normal boundaries and continue to meet their commitments over literacy.
But the problem for publishers is the threat that libraries will simply buy one e-book, and it will be loaned to multiple readers, in multiple locations, and in multiple numbers. Publishers have warned that uncurbed, a reader with a library card simply need never buy a book again. The dilemma was discussed last week on Radio 4's 'You and Yours', and on the BBC TV's 'Click'. The PA's Richard Mollet was on both, outlining publishers' concerns very ably.
Now the Society of Chief Librarians has waded into the debate, signing a joint declaration with the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. The key points are contained in the third and fourth paragraphs:
"While we are pleased to see that the Publishers Association has been able to develop a consensus to supply public libraries with e-books, we feel that the baseline has been set at a level that may have very limited practical use for library customers. It also creates significant technical issues for libraries around on-site downloading of e-books. We hope that those publishers who currently supply remote e-book lending services will not retrench to this baseline position."
Library readers are also book buyers, we are told: "There is no reason that this complementary relationship should not continue in virtual environments. There are many ways in which the library e-book offer could be more closely linked to a commercial retail offer than at present, and we would welcome the opportunity to explore different models with publishers, software manufacturers and retailers."
I am intrigued by the final sentence here. It is not clear, but if the SCL is suggesting libraries should be looking at "retailing" e-books as well as loaning them, then the worms could be about to burst right out of the proverbial can.
The interesting thing about HarperCollins' position in the US was that it provided a hint about how publishers view library lending. They don't mind it, so long as there are physical burdens that limit its usefulness: a print book may be loaned out on a number of occasions for the cost of just one print copy, but ultimately it is likely to disintegrate before its usefulness has run out.
If libraries ever became as good at loaning front-list p-books, as booksellers are at selling them, then the chances are this debate would have happened years ago. But there are many reasons why that won't happen. In the e-world, with OverDrive already providing "buy buttons" for libraries in the US, it is much more likely to evolve in that way. The SCL statement suggests it may be closer than we previously thought in the UK.
I haven't reached any firm conclusions over which way this is likely to fall. I was, however, struck by one librarian featured on 'You and Yours' who argued that publishers should wake up the fact that in the digital age e-book lending should not to be wedded to the physical model. Restrictions imposed on print, should not be superimposed on e.
But you can reverse this point, and question why libraries who were built to loan physical products should be allowed to loan digital books at all. There is no equivalent service for digital movie downloads, or audio CDs, though I can physically pick up a DVD or CD from my local library (imagine a free movie service available at the click of a button, I'd never rent a DVD again). If you argue that the old rules don't apply to e-books, then be prepared for others to argue that they really don't apply at all.
As mentioned, I haven't reached a view yet. It seems that publishers are finally waking up to the very real threats our public library service is facing. Both sides should be pulling together to make sure the library service remains alive and relevant in the 21st Century. In the meantime, let's not fall out over e-book lending.
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