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Have Lending Restrictions Slowed E-Book Adoption at Public Libraries?

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Several months ago, there was a bit of a dust-up over the lending of e-books by libraries. OverDrive, the vendor responsible for the e-book lending solution used by the vast majority of public libraries in North America, sent out a notice that introduced several new limitations, including one that caused an uproar among librarians. 

The first modification to the agreement with libraries was that geographic restrictions would be enforced, meaning that someone in Florida would be prevented from borrowing e-books from a library in New York, for example.

The more contentious restriction was one that set a maximum number of times an e-book could be checked out before a library would have to re-purchase it. The magic number after which a library's copy of an e-book would expire was set at 26 times -at least for Harper Collins titles. This was a requirement demanded by the publisher, concerned that these perfect digital copies might be eating into e-book (and traditional book) sales. The nature of the restriction is a Catch-22 for libraries: the more popular a title is, the more demand for it and the more patrons will use their e-book service. But as usage grows, the library could find itself having to rapidly replace popular e-book titles, which would be expensive.  If their budget doesn't allow for replacements, people will grow frustrated by the lack of popular titles and interest in e-book borrowing could wan. There were protests and a web site encouraging readers to boycott Harper Collins was established. Some libraries have considered suspending e-book purchases, while others are undoubtedly holding off on implementing a program until the issue is resolved.  As of this point in time, other publishers are not yet onboard with the library lending restrictions, but there is an expectation that it is likely only a matter of time until either Harper Collins backs down, or the rest of the industry adopts a similar policy.

With this brewing in the background, what has the impact been on e-book lending at libraries? According to OverDrive's figures, library customers were borrowing e-books at a rate that grew 200 percent from 2009 to 2010, an impressive rate of growth.  Whether this rate would be sustainable in 2011 -even with e-book and e-reader sales skyrocketing- is a question we'll have to wait until 2012 to find out for certain. However, the Toronto Public Library in Canada released figures showing that e-book lending is on fire; at least in this city, up 400 percent over last year so far. For example, May e-book checkouts in 2010 totalled 5,629, while in May of 2011, that had increased to 21,736 e-books. It's no wonder the Toronto Public Library was listed as a Feature Partner on OverDrive's web site this month. OverDrive also links to a recent article in the Dayton Daily News pointing out that e-book checkouts in that city's Dayton Metro Library has increased 386 percent since January.

Amazon reported earlier that Kindle titles had tripled in volume so far for 2011 compared to 2010. Although two libraries is a small sample, in these cases at least, e-book lending is pacing the increase seen in e-book sales -the restrictions don't seem to have killed momentum. 

It's still early, though. We'll have to wait until 2012 to get the full picture on e-book lending at public libraries for 2011. We don't know whether the Harper Collins limitation is going to stick, whether other publishers are going to join in, or what the impact will ultimately be on libraries -whether they'll buy fewer e-books or possibly focus on a digital collection from publishers that don't impose restrictions. There is also the Kindle effect, with OverDrive and Amazon prepping to finally allow for Kindle owners to borrow library books this Fall. E-reader adoption continues to rise, though, so expect pressure on libraries to expand their e-book collections.

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