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Page last updated at 11:15 GMT, Saturday, 12 March 2011

Can libraries survive in a digital world?

By Alex Hudson
BBC Click


The British Library has aspirations to digitise all of its 14m books

Publishers stand accused of "nonsensical" policies on e-book lending to libraries. So, with nearly $1bn spent on e-books last year in the US alone, what does this mean for the institutions already at risk of closure?

When publishers "declared war on libraries" last October - according to Luton's head of libraries - there was uproar.

The Publishers' Association (PA) in the UK has agreed with the major publishing houses to restrict e-lending by either geographical location or the number of readers using an e-book at any one time.

Amazon Kindle next to a pile of books
Amazon says it sold over 8m Kindle e-readers worldwide in 2010

And when HarperCollins became the first publisher to put its head above the parapet and change its conditions to the libraries, there was further anger.

It believes that e-books should be given a licence for 26 uses and then this must be renewed at further - though reduced - cost.

"We believe this change balances the value libraries get from our titles with the need to protect our authors and ensure a presence in public libraries," read a HarperCollins statement.

The "26-use" model was arrived at because, HarperCollins says, of the average lifespan of a physical copy in a library.

"Our hope is to make the cost per circulation for e-books less than that of the corresponding physical book," says Josh Marshall, president of sales at HarperCollins.

While only a policy in the US at the moment, HarperCollins "weren't ruling out" it happening in the UK and this has angered librarians even further.

The whole point of having an e-book is that I can get one wherever I am, whenever I want
Phil Bradley, librarian

"The idea that they've decided on 26 uses doesn't make any sense to me," says librarian Phil Bradley, vice president of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals.

"Any librarian can tell you that a paperback can be loaned at least 40 times and a hardback even more than that."

He had previously described the announcement as "a stupid, backward looking and retrograde step" on his personal blog.

'Price-tag zero'

But if all e-books were available to everyone at any time, why would anyone need to buy a book ever again? And why would anyone need to visit a library if it could be downloaded off-site?

"It's important to remember that libraries are not simply bookstores where the price-tag always reads zero," says Nora Daly, digital curator of the British Library.

"They exist to collect, sometimes create, but always preserve that knowledge, regardless of what format it is in and to help make it grow through advocating and assuring free and fruitful access to it.

The British Library's Growing Knowledge Centre
The British Library offers a glimpse of what could be the library of the future

"If we understand the role of libraries in that context, then in 10 years' time they will still be providing open and trusted environments - virtually and physically - in which to share, create and grow knowledge."

Amazon, the biggest e-book retailer, is getting in on the e-lending act. It offers the ability, in the US alone and only if the publishers opt in, to allow the "owner" of an e-book to lend it to someone else. Each file is allowed to be loaned only once for 14 days and cannot be read by the original purchaser during that time.

"We've got the balance about right in the [traditional] publishing world," says Richard Mollet, chief executive of the PA.

"If [libraries] had the ability to lend e-books freely... it would have a serious consequence for the commercial model."

Who owns what?

There has always been disagreement about what constitutes ownership in the digital world, and what can be done with the files you purchase.

"When you buy an e-book you are effectively buying a licence to view a file," says Mollet.

"Yes you're buying the manifestation of the work but what you can then do with that file is a separate question."

Not everyone agrees with this sentiment.

The author, journalist and campaigner Cory Doctorow allows his work, wherever possible, to be released from any digital rights management and made freely available on the web.

There is no way to coerce someone to pay for something if they want to take it for free
Cory Doctorow, author

"The thing that's so offensive about saying you cannot own a book anymore is that ownership of books predates copyright," he says.

"It not only predates printing but it predates commerce. People have been owning books longer than people have been buying and selling things."

And with the paper form having its limits, many see the new possibilities available with digital technology as a great opportunity to allow greater access to libraries, especially for those who traditionally struggle to reach libraries.

"The whole point of having an e-book is that I can get one wherever I am, whenever I want," says Bradley.

"They are not physical items and for the publisher to try and pretend that they are seems, to me, nonsensical."

'Homemade' Harry Potter

But the idea that things should be available instantly to all library users is not one that the PA agrees with. Indeed, Mollet believes that this is where e-tailers should step in.

Libraries are not for those who want something straight away, he says, as "you can jump onto any number of sites and buy them".

"It's not got much to do with the e-lending debate."

JK Rowling at the 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' launch
Harry Potter has been typed out by fans and put online without permission

A fact that publishers are wary of is that the written word is easier to plagiarise than a movie or film.

A homemade version of Avatar is not going to look as convincing as a home-typed version of Harry Potter. In fact, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - not released as an e-book - was typed out and released online illegally within 24 hours of release.

"In an increasingly digital world, there is no way to coerce someone into paying for something if they want to take it for free," says Doctorow.

"The only mechanism we have for convincing people to do the right thing, the legitimate thing or even the profitable thing is to appeal to their sense of ethics.

"I don't think you start doing that by saying that 'by the way, we don't trust you, we've developed this book that explodes after 26 uses and you can no longer own books anyway'."

But what does this mean for libraries? With hundreds of libraries earmarked for closure, are people just going to stop venturing into libraries at all?

"I get really fed up with the people who believe the entire idea that we're not going to read in libraries," says Bradley.

"I see the exact opposite. Libraries have got a vibrant future.

"Communities need libraries more than they ever have done before and they are in a superb position to help [during difficult economic times].

"People who say 'we don't need libraries because it's all on Google' either don't understand libraries or don't understand the internet at all."

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