Friends, Romans, Librarians: Lend Me Your E-book (Part 1)

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Today, in the first half of a two-part series on library e-book lending, writer Erik Christopher considers the models offered to librarians by the United States’ two largest e-book retailers, and Barnes & Noble.

By Erik Christopher

The digital age has complicated things, especially for libraries. Not only do patrons want traditional services, like books and reference materials, they want them digitally as well. That means libraries have been confronted with the challenge of how to lend e-books. But it’s not an easy task and there are so many business models, so many physical readers to choose from, that picking the right one is the equivalent of playing a game of “Go Fish.”

On the trade side, publishers can supply libraries with e-books directly or a library can go through the various e-retailers, such as Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Sony, Apple, Borders (who work with Kobo). On the other hand you have aggregators, several of whom cater specifically to the academic market by providing reference and research materials, that demand a different set of models altogether. Some have “one user at a time” options, though most focus on catering to multiple/simultaneous users so the materials can be accessed at the same time by multiple people, whether they are on a campus, in a library, at home, abroad, wherever really . . .

With all the options involved in e-book lending, you will see that trade and reference books are two sides of the essentially the same coin -– though the two sides do look different and serve somewhat different functions. For our purposes today we are going to look at the models that trade publishers use -– how libraries interact with them, as well as offers some of the viewpoints from company representatives and individuals working in the digital publishing world.

A is for Amazon

Amazon’s e-book lending model for libraries is fairly straightforward: they allow a library to lend an e-book once for a period of fourteen days, but the lender cannot read the title while it is being lent out. Amazon also says that you can have that title on up to six devices, provided they are Kindles (it does not apply to Kindle apps running on other devices). However, lending can also be limited by authors or publishers and the rights they choose to offer.

The model seems fair, as Amazon is working within publisher and author restraints. The problem with this lies within the fact that it’s aimed at your standard e-book consumer not a library user.

Buffy Hamilton, Librarian at Creekview High School in Georgia, noted, “If Amazon would offer a licensing model designed more for the library market, I’d be willing to pay a few more dollars in exchange for the ability to put the e-book on more devices. I’d love it if there were a way to actually ‘lend’ the Kindle books to patrons who wanted to read the books on their own devices.”

At Hamilton’s library’s site, here, you can view her library guides and watch videos to see how she implemented an e-book lending program. It’s a great resource for other librarians in K-12 to see how it can be done.

“Loaning the readers is the easy part, managing the e-books is the complicated part,” said Hamilton. “By that, I mean it does take a little time to maintain the record keeping to accurately track your purchases, as well as on which Kindles you’ve loaded with specific titles.”

Sue Polanka, Librarian at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio published a book on libraries and e-books called No Shelf Required and runs a blog of the same name, said, “The problem with many of the lending models is that they are messy. The readers are designed for individuals and not libraries. This in turn forces librarians to often use back doors and is not efficient.” Polanka added, “Customer service is another issue. Trying to get a hold of someone from Amazon to assist us took a long time. They don’t have a good point of contact to work with libraries and you basically end up bouncing around from one person to another.”

DRM as it affects lending is yet another factor to consider, and most librarians I spoke with would opt for a cloud-based, non-DRM e-book solution, that would allow you to purchase for whatever platform you choose. “DRM is the biggest issue and that along with no DRM she would like to see a cloud based e-book solution, one where you can purchase for whatever platform you choose.” Google Books may, in the long term, offer just such a model, but there is not yet any indication if they will implement e-book lending in the near term.

“Like many librarians, I believe in an ideal world we would have an e-book platform that would be readable on any device,” said Hamilton. “In addition, this ideal world would have some type of DRM that would be friendlier for a library lending model and make it easier not only for libraries to distribute e-books on multiple devices, but also the ability to loan e-books to patrons on their own devices. I also recognize and respect that e-book publishers can’t just give away these materials and need to distribute the e-books in a profitable manner to cover production costs, royalties, and such.”

Nancy Gibbs, Head of Acquisitions at Duke University, said that offering e-books for loan requires a great deal of hard work. “It’s been a great learning experience,” she said, adding “one I am happy we did.” Comparing Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s e-book lending models with the academic aggregators, she noted several limitations: “Not being able to pay with a corporate account, which we have, is frustrating. We are tax exempt and there is a lot of paperwork and back end work that needs to be done if we pay tax and then need to correct it for our tax exempt status.”

Gibbs cited the inability to pay with a corporate account, on top of the poor customer service (noted earlier), made things very challenging. “We do like that we can have a title on up to six devices, but this isn’t always the case. Often we can only put it on four devices, a limitation imposed by the publisher or author. We also couldn’t print or copy and didn’t have the ability to work with the apps available, so it’s just the physical reader.” She, too, wants to see DRM relaxed or done away with altogether, as well as eliminating proprietary software and devices or, at least, making software that are more user friendly -– at present, she says that the Kindle (and Nook) devices offered are functional, but neither is that efficient for her purposes. She suggests the retailers take a page from the academic aggregators and what they offer. (Gibbs also offers videos and other tutorials on her eReader Home Page, which also outlines several of her collection development tactics.


B is for Barnes & Noble

Next up is Barnes & Noble’s Nook. B&N’s e-book lending model is very similar to Amazon’s for the Kindle. You can lend a title once for 14 days and the book is not viewable by the person who did the lending. Barnes & Noble has branded their system “LendMe” and they launched well before Amazon did, which gave them one distinct advantage over the early market leader.

Once again, this is a good model for your general consumer, but not especially for a library, which needs to serve thousands of patrons. The models are currently so close that choosing one or the other as a key vendor depends largely on one’s preference for devices, though, as Nancy Gibbs at Duke pointed out, B&N is not limiting the number of devices on which one can load an e-book, something that makes the Nook marginally more attractive for library operations.

Theresa Horner, VP of Digital Content at Barnes & Noble, and Carolyn Brown, Communications Director of B&N, offered some additional details. They noted that LendMe is set up so that when you want to lend a title to someone, B&N sends out a notification to the recipient, who then has up to seven days to accept. During that period you cannot access the title until they either decline the loan, or else accept it and are then finished reading it.

“LendMe is part of Nookstudy, but only in the sense that you can accept a lend, but you cannot lend out a title.” said Brown.

Horner added that the LendMe function should be available on all of the various platforms or apps of Nook. So the desktop app and the iPhone app or any other version should have LendMe capabilities, the only caveat being that sometimes updates aren’t pushed out right away, and a delay can occur. “The Nook Color has helped improved LendMe by having a more user friendly UI and allowing for social interaction and one step LendMe function,” said Horner. “One other aspect of the model is a function where contacts you approve can request a lending of an e-book from your library. They are able to see what titles you have and what is lendable and then they can request it from you.” This again, puts it one step ahead of Amazon, currently. “We haven’t received much feedback from customers,” she said,” “it’s primarily aimed at the consumer market and not libraries. We feel there are better models out there that serve libraries and their needs, so our focus will continue to be on the consumer end.”

Horner said B&N views the future of e-books and lending as something still in flux. What they have tried to develop is a program that can be adaptable, particularly as social networking and sharing develops further. In this case, B&N has implemented comment sharing: “Not only can you lend a whole title, you can actually share a quote of text with others, that in itself is unique to B&N,” said Horner.

In Part 2, tomorrow, Christopher looks at the model offered by Overdrive and considers the future of lending with the Open Book Alliance’s Peter Brantley

DISCUSS: Have You Borrowed or Lent E-books? What Was Your Experience?

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