Libraries Navigate Digital Lending

Mira Ptacin
From the November/December 2014 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In 1930, Robert Carlton Brown penned a manifesto titled The Readies in which he wrote, “The written word hasn’t kept up with the age,” and went on to propose “a simple reading machine which I can carry or move around, attach to any old electric light plug and read hundred-thousand-word novels in ten minutes if I want to, and I want to.” Brown’s proposal, of course, was prescient. More than eighty years later, not only are digital books as common as paperbacks, but they’ve also forced authors, publishers, and readers to invent and adapt new ways of distributing, pricing, buying, and reading works of literature. Public libraries have also had to adjust to the increasing reality of books as an electronic commodity, and while the transition hasn’t been easy, many new developments in e-book lending are attempting to facilitate the change.

While Amazon’s newly launched Kindle Unlimited service is estimated to bring in $1 billion a year in e-book sales, there’s a comparable choice available at no cost to anyone with a library card: It’s called OverDrive, and right now it’s the largest provider of e-books for American public libraries. Using either the program’s mobile platform or a library’s own portal, digital titles can be checked out for a few days or weeks at a time on e-readers like the Kindle and iPad—and if you forget to return them, you won’t be fined; they’ll just politely delete themselves from the device when your time is up.

To Samantha Duckworth, a science and technology reference librarian at the Portland Public Library in Portland, Maine, the gradual rise of e-lending is generally good news for libraries—particularly as offerings like Kindle Unlimited and its predecessors, Oyster and Scribd, make e-books increasingly available for purchase with the tap of a finger. “Most [library] patrons have a limited book-buying budget and will always seek out less expensive options,” Duckworth says. But with new technology also comes new challenges.

The first is simply accessing information on an e-reader—a task that younger readers may take for granted, but with which older library patrons are often less familiar. “Countless well-intentioned people buy their older relatives an expensive device without even showing them how to turn it on,” says media librarian Anne Holcomb of Willard Public Library in Battle Creek, Michigan. “We have many seniors whose grandkids buy them a device, but some people walk into the library with their device still in the box, which can be a challenge for the library staff, too.” Adds Duckworth: “It is a highly technical process for someone who is not used to having content delivered wirelessly.”

Technological hurdles aside, there is no shortage of titles available for libraries to add to their virtual stacks. Recently, Macmillan U.S. made its entire frontlist e-book catalogue available to libraries. And after successfully completing a pilot program with twenty library systems across the country, Simon & Schuster has opened up its entire catalogue of frontlist, backlist, and new-release e-book titles for libraries to purchase and lend immediately upon publication. Using platforms like OverDrive, libraries can lend each purchased title an unlimited number of times within a one-year period. (OverDrive also gives patrons the option to buy the book through the library’s portal, which provides the library with a small cut of the sale.)

Despite the availability of titles, Duckworth and Holcomb agree that the biggest challenge libraries face amid the digital boom is cost. The purchase price of e-books tends to be much higher for libraries than for regular customers, and while most major publishers work with OverDrive, each has a different pricing structure. Some publishers require libraries to repurchase an e-book after a certain period of time (one or two years) or a certain number of checkouts (typically twenty-six or fifty-two). Others allow libraries to keep the e-books, but the cost of recent best-sellers is nearly prohibitive: seventy-five to eighty-five dollars for the newest James Patterson, for example.

“We’re certainly not hoping to get free books, but it is really unfair to ask libraries to pay nearly five times the amount a regular consumer [spends] for the same product,” Duckworth says, noting that the only way for libraries to carry an e-book is to work directly with its publisher. “We get daily requests from patrons who want to donate their e-books to the library, and we have to say, ‘No, sorry, that is not possible,’ when libraries are really in the business of saying, ‘Yes, we will do whatever we can to help.’”

In the face of such cost restrictions, many libraries—especially small ones—are forced to make tough decisions about how much to spend on print versus digital books. Last year in Cherryfield, Maine, for example, the local library could only afford to purchase eleven hardcover books for its patrons, choosing to forgo any new e-books (the amount of money the library was allotted would have equated to two or three digital titles). Publishers, of course, need to pay authors and cover the costs involved in producing a book, and selling a title to a library to be lent for free brings in little profit. So how can a free library, supported on a limited budget with tax revenue, provide e-books to its patrons at a reasonable cost while preserving the needs of authors and publishers?

Duckworth suggests adapting a European lending model called Public Lending Right (PLR), through which authors are entitled to receive a payment for library circulation and other public use of their works. Thirty-three European countries currently utilize PLR, which exists primarily through government funding. Authors are paid based on how often their works are lent out and how many copies of their books are held in libraries. “That way,” says Duckworth, “the cost of the e-book is proportional to its use, and libraries don’t have to fret as much about buying books.”

A Swedish company, Atingo, has developed a similar model through which publishers receive direct payment each time a title is loaned, rather than an up-front fee. The platform—which is used in more than a thousand public libraries and three thousand school libraries throughout Scandinavia and the U.K.—also allows unlimited concurrent lending of a title, unlike in the United States, where the number of simultaneous loans is limited to the number of copies licensed by a library. The model gives publishers the freedom to price their titles for libraries as they see fit, while encouraging them to recognize those titles as a service item rather than a commodity.      

Domestically, another new lending option was recently introduced through a partnership between Library Journal and BiblioBoard. The platform, called SELF-e, is specifically targeted toward self-published authors, who often rely heavily upon local libraries to carry their books. The service is free, and enables self-published authors and libraries to collaborate directly to make self-published e-books more readily available.

“Libraries will always be here to serve people who need a place to be, free books to read, and company to be in,” says Duckworth. “But our role is changing, and the more publishers resist efforts to lend e-books, the more libraries will explore other lending options, such as through self-published authors. It’s a shame, because at the extreme we’d be saying, ‘Sorry, we can’t carry so-and-so’s books here because of these impossible rules.’ I’m not sure where that leaves us.”

Mira Ptacin is the founder of New York City’s Freerange Nonfiction Reading Series, and leads the writing program at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Her website is


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As public libraries wrestle with the rise of e-books and the implications of digital lending, have your library habits changed? Still have a library card? When you walk into your local branch, are you looking for a book to download, or one to hold in your hands, or something else altogether? Join the discussion over on our Facebook page -