Recently, I returned from Riga, where the annual meeting of the European umbrella association of libraries took place. The NAPLE (National Authorities for Public Libraries in Europe) Forum, as a network of key players for public libraries in the EU member states and associated states, especially in the field of digitisation, is also active within its framework. I became a member of this working group, which in recent times is in the vice grip of e-book lending, as I come from the organisation that in Slovenia developed BIBLOS, a platform for e-book lending for public libraries (and is as such free of charge for the end-user, in contrast to the numerous commercial e-lending services appearing in recent years). NAPLE, with its influence at the level of euro-bureaucracy, has successfully initiated a one-year EU Council Sub-Group, working in the context of the Council Work Plan for Culture 2015-2018, with the priority of “accessible and inclusive culture”, and especially “promoting reading in the digital environment in order to encourage access and audience development”. Public libraries at the European level have therefore recognised a flow of their users towards commercial providers of e-book lending services, and feel the need to find, through a common European policy, the best way to come closer to the digital user. It is a fact that the system of public as well as other libraries in many European states represents the largest cultural system of the country (especially in the Scandinavian and Baltic states, as well as in Slovenia). Simultaneously, libraries in the past have had to transform themselves in accordance with the spirit of the times. And if we agree with the fact that the e-book has culturally established itself as a new medium and carrier of information and that, furthermore, the rate of growth thereof will only increase in the future, and that as a result, the e-book as a medium will take on an increasingly important role, we see that this trend is reflected in libraries all around the world, where e-books are today part of the expected offerings and where demand for them is high. For libraries, it is very clear that they can remain modern public institutions only if they will be able to offer digital media. If this remains out of their reach, they will become museums of books. Who is the interfering factor here? Most often, the culprits are the publishers themselves. This is one of the conclusions of the very interesting “Public Library E-lending Models Research Project”, commissioned by the Netherlands and Flanders, which has been finished by Civic Agenda EU in September 2014 and which covered 10 European countries. Of course, the report will soon be one year old and as changes in the field of e-books continue to occur at the speed of light, the data is already now out of date. Yet the key message on the level of the covered countries – those that have already developed a system of public e-book lending – remains true: libraries face difficulties in meeting the conditions demanded of them by publishers for lending their titles in digital format. Often, the situation is such that individual publishers, groups of publishers or even national publishers’ associations simply refuse to license (sell) e-books to libraries. Other possibilities include the sale of e-licenses at incredibly high prices, licenses with a harsh time limit, or with strict limits on the possible number of loans per license. In Finland, for example, publishers did not even want to consider the possibility of selling e-books to libraries until 2012. Through a state-financed one-year pilot project (worth 0.6 million €), implemented by the central Helsinki Metropolitan library, they softened their stance and offered libraries a limited selection of one-year licences, for 20 individual loans per license, where libraries had to pay an additional 0.63 € per loan. In Denmark, publishers wished to run down the eReolen platform for library lending, which was created as a (state-financed) initiative of libraries, through their own platform, which would serve libraries with licenses for 4 loans at a time, after which the library would have to re-purchase the license. In Estonia, e-books are sold by one single distributor, the selection consists mainly of back-list titles, and one license allows for 20 loans. A quick look across the pond: Random House and Hachette demand from the American system Overdrive an approximately three times higher price for a time-limited e-license as compared to a printed book. The list could go on.
What then is the point and what is the consideration in the background? Social and economic circumstances today are of course considerably different from those in the 19th century, when public libraries came into existence. And if it is (due to the historical mission and tradition, the public good and social status of public libraries, etc.) still self-evident that publishers sell a copy of their printed book to a library at retail price or even at a discount, and then allows its unlimited lending (a book’s life-cycle is around 50 loans), they won’t submit to this calculus when it comes to e-books. Given the contemporary state of (economic) thinking and discussions on intellectual property, there isn’t a single modern publisher that would be ready to sell one copy of an e-book and allow its unlimited lending (even if we ignore the obvious copyright problem). If libraries expected e-lending to occur in analogue to the lending of physical books, they were very wrong. This issue is complicated further by the offerings of commercial e-libraries, which function like a book club and enable the user, for payment of a monthly flat fee, a predetermined number of e-loans of various titles. Here, the business model enables a higher income for the publisher – and puts further strain on lending conditions for public libraries.
Of course, all of society – publishers included – is aware of the fact that it is also (or mainly) libraries that 1) create readers (and, more often than not, authors that readers would never know otherwise) and 2) create buyers of books. More generally, libraries are the driving force behind the creation of a culture of reading; without them, there would be far less talking and writing about books, and this in turn would negatively affect the sale of books. For this reason, too, a common and Europe-wide reflection on what our world of e-bookstores and e-libraries should look like, in order to offer the best possible experience to the modern user and at the same time ensure a sustainable model that enables the long-term functioning of everyone involved (the author, the publisher, the bookstore, and the library), is absolutely necessary. The report on the outcomes of the EU Council Sub-group, mentioned in the beginning, is expected in early 2016. Unfortunately, I am afraid that the composition of the Sub-group does not contain all the important stakeholders that would enable it to produce a concrete and practically useful solution for any of the dilemmas discussed here.