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Understanding E-Books in Libraries: When an E-book is Unavailable

Borrowing digital content from a library is not a new concept. Libraries have been lending DVDs, audio books, computer programs, and other digital media for many years. So when e-books became the new way to read sometime around 2010, it was only natural that librarians assumed they would be able to download e-books for their collections. That was not the case.

Libraries struggled long and hard to be able to obtain e-books, and they're still limited in the capacity in which they can be lent out. This is as frustrating to librarians as it is to library patrons. Unfortunately, librarians are the ones who bear the brunt of that frustration.

Rise of the E-book Trend (And the Start of the Problem)

When the e-book trend first emerged, library services began looking for ways to purchase them and offer them for lending. The trouble was, there was no way to do that. Many of the biggest publishers simply did not make their e-books available for purchase at all. Some publishers allowed libraries to license the book and lend it out, but after a certain amount of circulation, the license would have to be re-purchased. Then, even that offering was taken away. This left librarians scratching their heads in confusion and balling their fists in frustration. The American Library Association (ALA) began a task force in 2011 to address these and other prominent issues in the library world.

It seems the biggest disconnect was between the publishers and the libraries. Libraries are built on content sharing, and publishers are built on protecting an author's rights to that content. Their fear was free e-books. When it came to e-books, it was very difficult to share them without violating antitrust laws. Over the next several years, the ALA began developing a series of business models and documents that would allow libraries to fairly access and lend e-books. Since then, they have made much progress in helping libraries stock their virtual shelves. However, major gaps still remain, which is why the concept of an "out of stock" e-book still exists.

Owning Vs. Licensing a Book: a Big Difference

It's easy to understand why library patrons get frustrated when an e-book for download isn't available. Its digital content is housed in a server; how is it even possible that it's not available? The thing that many consumers don't understand is when you buy an e-book, you don't actually own it. Regardless of whether it's a consumer or a library, you're not actually buying the book, you're licensing it. The difference between owning a copy of a book and owning a license to it is key. When you own something, you can use it any way you want. You pay for it once, royalties are given to the author, the publisher is paid, and the book is yours. When you a buy a license to something, you are allowed to use it under specific restrictions.

It's similar to buying a car versus leasing a car. When you buy a car, get the least expensive insurance, and then treat it however you like. You can drive it into the ground if you want to. When you lease a car, you are required to have specific coverage, and many lease terms specify the amount of miles you can put on the car before it violates the lease. That's how it works when libraries "lease" an e-book.

Some publishers limit the amount of times a book can be borrowed before the license must be repurchased, while others make you repurchase every year. Some publishers charge a much higher price for libraries compared to consumers. For example, one library official notes that a particular best-selling book costs consumers $12.99, while it costs libraries $74.84.

Why Can't Libraries Own E-books?

If you were to explain all this to one of your patrons, they would likely ask: What's the difference between a print book and an e-book when it comes to this owning versus licensing thing, then? And that's a valid question. A library can own a paperback or hardcover book; why can't it just own a digital book? The answer lies within the complexities of copyright law. The "first-sale" component of copyright law says that once you buy something, it's yours, like in the car example above. That's how libraries own the rights to lend out their print books.

If a library bought a print book from a publisher, and the publisher tried to tell them they couldn't lend it, the publisher would be violating copyright laws. But the first-sale doctrine doesn't cover licensing and therefore doesn't cover e-books. That means publishers have the rights to put whatever contingencies they want on the license, whether it's higher prices, expiration dates, or a specific amount of borrowing. This loophole in the law doesn't affect libraries only: We see it in digital music, movies, and other media, too. What it all boils down to is that copyright laws need to be amended to reflect the digital age.

Helping Patrons Understand

Essentially, there are several reasons an e-book could be out of stock. The following may be helpful when explaining the concept to library patrons.

  • Because the library does not own the e-book, and is only allowed to license it, the library must use it in the way the license requires.
  • Therefore, the e-book is not available because the publisher will not make it available.
  • The e-book is unavailable because the license has expired or it has reached its maximum quota of circulations and must be repurchased.
  • The cost of licensing copies of the e-book is prohibitive.

Being able to borrow an e-book opens up great opportunities for libraries, publishers, and authors. It gives libraries better access to best-selling books that might otherwise be hard to keep available. It gives publishers and authors a new gateway for marketing and book sales. Finally, it gives patrons more choices when it comes to how they want to read a book and when they can read it. Imagine never having to tell a patron that the book they're seeking is unavailable! The world might just become a happier place. Until then, patrons will unfortunately have to wait.

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American Library Association
International Federation of Library Associations
American Libraries
Good E-Reader