California Librarian Calls for E-book Lending Action

In What's the Buzz by Hannah Johnson

By Hannah Johnson

When Penguin recently announced the termination of its contract with OverDrive and thus an end to supplying libraries with any more e-books, California librarian Sarah Houghton got fed up. She posted a sign in the San Rafael Public Library that informed patrons of the publishers that do not allow libraries to lend their e-books. The sign also encourages people to contact these publishers and complain.

Houghton posted this sign in the San Rafael Public Library after learning that Penguin had terminated its contract with OverDrive.

“As a librarian and as a reader, I am tired of publishers walking away from the library table,” Houghton wrote on her blog. She’s already fielded calls from patrons concerned about being able to get books from her library. Now, Houghton is asking the library community to start speaking up:

I think it’s about damn time we, as library professionals, started getting the public riled up about this too. We need legislation passed (or copyright law clarified) that states that indeed, libraries can license/purchase and lend out digital items just like they can with physical items. Fragmentation and exclusionary business practices hurt the people we serve. As a librarian I feel we must stand up, as a profession, and say “no more.”

It’s true that many publishers are worried about the effect of lending e-books to libraries. Will readers continue to buy e-books when they can borrow it for free? If you download a library e-book, how easy is it to make an illegal copy? Can people borrow library books from other countries, thereby violating territorial rights?

Molly Raphael, president of the American Library Association (ALA), conducted a series of meetings with publishers in New York City earlier this month. Her goal was to better understand publishers’ concerns and to find ways publishers and libraries can cooperate to achieve their mutual goal of bringing authors and readers together. In an article for American Libraries Magazine, she wrote:

A key issue that arose in each meeting is the degree to which “friction” may decline in the ebook lending transaction as compared to lending print books. From the publisher viewpoint, this friction provides some measure of security. Borrowing a print book from a library involves a nontrivial amount of personal work that often involves two trips—one to pick up the book and one to return it. The online availability of ebooks alters this friction calculation, and publishers are concerned that the ready download-ability of library ebooks could have an adverse effect on sales.

The Digital Shift, a blog of Library Journal and School Library Journal, also reported on the ALA’s meetings with publishers. Their report quotes Alison Lazarus, the president of sales for Macmillan, as saying, “We want to insure that customers who have typically been book buyers do not migrate their purchasing into borrowing as accessibility to our books becomes frictionless.”

While it’s a futile effort to try and slow down digital progress by requesting that it be harder for library patrons to check out e-books, publishers do need to find a way to ensure their growing digital revenue streams continue to grow.

Library advocates argue that libraries play an important role in terms of marketing and discoverability. A recent Library Journal study, Patron Profiles, reports that “more than 50% of all library users go on to purchase books they were introduced to in the library.”

The big question publishers need to answer is whether the book marketing and discovery that libraries facilitate ultimately results in more or fewer sales than if readers only have the option to purchase e-books.

About the Author

Hannah Johnson


Hannah Johnson is the publisher of international book industry magazine Publishing Perspectives, which provides daily information and news about book markets around the world. In addition to building partnerships with international cultural and trade organizations, she works with the Frankfurt Book Fair to organize and support a number of its overseas initiatives. Hannah has also worked as the managing editor for an online media company, The Hooch Life, focused on craft distillers and cocktail experts. Prior to that, she worked as a project manager for the Frankfurt Book Fair’s New York office, managing various business and marketing activities.