Cultural Heritage

A UKOLN Blog for the Cultural Heritage sector (now archived)

e-Books in Public Libraries

Posted by guestblogger on October 4th, 2010

About this Guest Post

Martin Palmer is the Principal Officer for Libraries at Essex County Council, where he has been responsible for the provision of e-books over the past seven years. He can be contacted at

e-Books in Public Libraries

I was invited to a meeting of Health Librarians recently to talk about the Essex experience of providing e-books in a public library setting. It was held at the Senate House at London University, which – apart from giving me the opportunity to hear about lots of exciting things going on in a different sector – also provided an interesting context in which to reflect on how e-books in public libraries have developed over the past few years, as I had given a presentation in the same venue (along with Linda Berube, one of last month’s guest bloggers…) on the same subject in 2004.

So, has anything changed in six years?

Well, one would hope so – and a lot has. For a start, the Overdrive download service that we first offered all that time ago is now also available from around 20 other authorities around the country (with more in the pipeline) providing not only e-books but e-audio as well. In fact, growth in interest has been sufficient for the MLA to set up a ‘community of practice’ for librarians interested in sharing their experience, problem solving, requesting advice, and so on.

New suppliers have also emerged, including Coutts/Ingram’s MyiLibrary; Public Library Online (formerly Bloomsbury Online), which offers simultaneous on-line access to ‘electronic bookshelves’; and W F Howes’ Clipper material is available as e-audio downloads. Not only that, but a venerable name from the supply of print material to public libraries – Askews – is about to launch its own e-book service, too.

Not surprisingly, this growth on the supply side has been stimulated to a large extent by a rise in public demand for such material, reflecting a huge growth in e-reading – partly inspired by the latest generation of devices such as the Sony e-reader, the Kindle, and others but also by the arrival of the iPhone, iPad and so on (other multi-functional bits of kit are also available…).

This has been accompanied by a gradual realisation on the part of many publishers that e-books can offer an important new income stream, rather than simply threatening their existing revenue. As a result, some bestsellers now become available as e-books at the same time as the print publication; recent examples include Dan Brown’s ‘The Lost Symbol’ and the accounts of life in New Labour by Tony Blair and Baron Mandelson (ok – possibly not the best adverts for an exciting new medium…), all of which throw into sharp contrast the situation of only a few years ago when it was unclear whether any top-selling titles would ever appear in an e-format.

What hasn’t changed

However, some things haven’t changed that much – and some have had a rather mixed impact. For example, when we first started in Essex, we offered e-books that could be read on generic PCs and laptops, partly because we didn’t want to have to supply reading devices ourselves, but mainly because all e-book readers had temporarily become obsolete and so there were none available to purchase.

The ‘renaissance’ of the e-reader has had the beneficial effect of raising awareness and demand, but has also resulted in bewildering matrix of format/device compatibility questions that – complicated further by Digital Rights Management (DRM) questions – has led in turn to a very confused public. If a borrower has an iPad and it’s compatible with .epub, why can’t they read the library’s .epub titles? (Because the iPad and the DRM wrapper for library .epub e-books aren’t compatible). And so on…

To charge or not to charge?

There’s also some confusion for public library managers at the moment in that, as part of the DCMS review of the service published earlier this year, the government made some very clear statements around the question of charging for e-book lending, saying that there was an expectation that it should be free of charge. This was a useful clarification for some at least, reinforcing the basic message of the 1964 Act that public library reading-based activity should be free; for others, hoping to introduce e-books as a way of generating income, it was less helpful…

However, the change of government has led to a period of uncertainty in this area as Ed Vaizey has said that he wants to consult more widely before deciding on the way ahead. Consequently – alongside all the other changes that have happened over the past few months since the election, it’s perhaps not surprising that any services who hadn’t already firmly committed themselves to launching e-books should opt to wait to see how things pan out.

Audience take-up

Nevertheless, it’s beginning to look as though the attractions of e-reading are finally reaching a critical mass-type audience, with mainstream publishers now having ‘teaser’ advertising campaigns which make the first couple of chapters of new books available in e-formats, enabling potential customers to read them on their mobile phones and – hopefully – get sufficiently hooked to buy the book (whether in print or electronically), while the number of reading-based apps now available for the iPhone and iPad seemingly now outnumbers that for games. Not bad for an activity which Steve Jobs seemed to dismiss less than two years ago, saying that ‘nobody reads any more’.

In Essex, we’ve now expanded our coverage from the original Overdrive and ebrary services to include Public Library Online and Clipper from W F Howes, and currently get the equivalent of around 100,000 ‘loans’ per year from our electronic services, with the level of take-up increasing all the time.

That’s not to ignore the fact that there are still many areas of the e-book world that still need both further development and stabilisation – standards are still more notable by their absence, for example, while collection development is still fraught with difficulty.

Looking ahead

However, compared with the position when we first got involved seven or more years ago – where it wasn’t even clear that there was an audience, let alone suitable content – the relationship between e-books and UK public libraries is now much more firmly-based, and (legislation and budgetary pressures notwithstanding) now seems likely to grow much more quickly over the next couple of years.

In fact, as I sometimes find myself talking about e-books in public libraries at events alongside librarians from special and academic libraries, it’s interesting to see that although the involvement of those sectors in e-material tends to rather fuller, and also dates back some time before that of public libraries, there now often seems to be less difference in terms of scale, range and use of collections across the sectors than might be imagined…

One Response to “e-Books in Public Libraries”

  1. Tweets that mention Cultural Heritage » Blog Archive » e-Books in Public Libraries -- Says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Katy Wrathall, Richard Aird, Claire, Graham Dash, David Jenkins and others. David Jenkins said: Interesting primer on e-books in public libraries [...]