Last autumn the DCMS commissioned an independent review of e-lending in public libraries in England. The panel took evidence from selected individuals and organisations representing a range of views, from publishers, librarians, booksellers, authors and so on, as well as an open call for evidence.
The review has just been published (press release and actual review) and makes for interesting reading. (NB, although it says England in the title, as the ‘big six’ publishers are national or international companies, and because it covers PLR, its findings will probably end up applying to Wales as well.) It sets out that it “attempts to establish some ground rules on which publishers and libraries can agree to move forward in expanding digital lending offers.”
It’s a pretty easy report to read, and on my very initial quick reading of it, I would say that the findings are generally quite positive for public libraries. It notes, for example, that “it is plain that an inability to offer digital lending will make libraries increasingly irrelevant in a relatively short time. Library services therefore do not have the luxury of waiting any longer to expand, or in many cases, start, their provision of digital lending and to link it to a broader digital strategy.” (my emphasis) It was probably good that we started the e-books Wales scheme a couple of years ago, rather than waiting for the path to become clear.
The report does note that they were presented mainly with the challenges rather than the opportunities of digital developments. On looking at the list of people who were asked to give verbal evidence, it’s clear why this was the case. By my reckoning, out of the 27 people, 14 (50%) represent publishers, 5 I’ve classed as ‘other’, 3 ‘bodies’ (e.g. Arts Council England), 3 represent libraries, 1 represents writers, and 1 represents readers.
Despite that, there are some positive recommendations for public libraries and for authors. And it notes the benefit for blind and partially-sighted readers of being able to use e-books. The plus points include that e-book e-lending in public libraries should be free for the user, and, available remotely. Both of these are important ground rules to establish. Personally, I am less convinced by the arguments for the next two recommendations: that e-lending should be restricted to one-copy one-reader at a time, and that digital copies should ‘deteriorate’ after a set number of loans so that popular titles are purchased again. Both of these are applying a print-based model for a physical item to a digital piece of software/license.
However, putting myself in the publishers’ shoes (and I did work for a small publisher once!), I can see that if a library service buys a book in year 1, then in year 3 buys another copy, and in year 6 a third copy as they are too tatty to lend, then that’s 3 sales for the publisher. How about they buy a second copy after a set period of loans, and can keep both copies for lending, so that more people can access the book and the author’s work?
The fifth recommendation relates to Public Lending Right and is great news for authors if e-books are brought in under this so that they can benefit from downloaded copies as well as hard print ones.
The final recommendation probably concerns England only in that they recommend setting up some pilots between publishers, public library services and reading ‘events’ e.g. World Book Night, to pilot different e-lending schemes and gather data on e-lending as a research exercise and “to move forward in 2014 with an agreed national approach for digital lending”. The review says the “UK experiement” (sic) will need to pay careful attention to developments abroad. And closer to home in Wales, I suggest!
The actual text of the recommendations is below:
- The provisions in the Digital Economy Act 2010 that extend PLR to audio books and loans of on-site e-books should be enacted.
- Further legislative changes should be made to allow PLR to take account of remote e-loans.
- The overall PLR pot should be increased to recognise the increase in rights holders.
- A number of pilots in 2013 using established literary events should be set up to test business models and user behaviours, and provide a transparent evidence base: all major publishers and aggregators should participate in these pilots.
- Public libraries should offer both on-site and remote e-lending service to their users, free at point of use.
- The interests of publishers and booksellers must be protected by building in frictions that set 21st-century versions of the limits to supply which are inherent in the physical loans market (and where possible, opportunities for purchase should be encouraged). These frictions include the lending of each digital copy to one reader at a time, that digital books could be securely removed after lending and that digital books would deteriorate after a number of loans. The exact nature of these frictions should evolve over time to accommodate changes in technology and the market.
The Westminster government have issued a response to the recommendations as well. Generally they welcome the core principles of e-lending that the report recommends and the generation of better data through pilot events. They also agree to look at the extension of PLR, although there isn’t a firm commitment to this and they note the increase in funding it would require. It’s therefore unclear if this is likely to happen.
So, what does this mean for Wales, and the Welsh e-books scheme?
Currently the public library e-books scheme in Wales is free for users, allows remote downloads, and restricts loans to one-copy one- user. Any decision on the number of loans before an e-book self-destructs will be a new feature, so we will need to be included in on discussions of that. PLR is funded directly by DCMS but Welsh public libraries will need to contribute their e-book download data if the PLR is extended to e-books.
So, plenty to discuss in the future. The report says “the atmosphere between the publishing and library communities has become strained”. Hopefully this will change over time.
Other responses to the review:
- Society of Chief Librarians
- Phil Bradley – in a personal capacity
- Society of Authors
- Public Libraries News
- Voices for the Library
- Good Library blog and again here
- The Thought Fox (Faber books, Stephen Page) – a longer piece which also has interesting discussion about future of the public library service. Stephen Page was one of the independent panel on the review and is CEO of Faber books.
- Shelf Free – informal group of librarians