Why Libraries “Lend” E-Books

chainedbookHave you ever wondered why you have to “return” e-books from the library? Typically, libraries permit users to download and read e-books for a limited period of time. Moreover, libraries often limit the number of users who can simultaneously read e-books from their collections. When it comes to physical or analog copies of books, this makes a lot of sense. We are all familiar with how lending works at libraries. However, when you checkout a digital book from a library, technically you are making a copy of that book. And as a digital file, it can virtually be replicated infinitely. “Lending” e-books then seems like an odd metaphor and a holdover from a previous library model that applied to physical print books. It is an awkward abstraction.

At Canadian universities, we run into this situation most commonly with Ebrary, one of the largest e-book lending systems commonly used in our libraries (owned by parent company, Proquest). For many books in the Ebrary collection, the number of simultaneous readers is restricted and the ability to download full copies of e-books is also often limited to fourteen days (when available at all). This can occasionally pose a problem when, for instance, you want to assign an Ebrary book for a course or when a large number of students require access to one for a research assignment.

This model for e-book lending is a major challenge for public libraries across Canada and the United States. Libraries and publishers are trying to develop a system that balances the interests of readers, libraries, authors, and publishers. At times, the lending system for e-books can be complicated and downright baffling. To make some sense of it all, Nora Young hosted an excellent panel discussion on her CBC radio program, Spark, featuring Jane Pyper, City Librarian for the Toronto Public Library, Carolyn Wood, Executive Director of the Association of Canadian Publishers, and David O’Brien, a researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Click here or use the player below to listen to this episode.


“E-book Lending in Libraries” Spark, 3 April 2013

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