E-books in the library: Borrower’s rights at risk

One of the most important issues affecting the future of libraries is in the process of being decided. Everything indicates that ebooks will be an important form of the literature consumed. We don’t know how many people will prefer e-books and we don’t know when e-books will really take off. But all the figures and graphs from countries ahead of us in this development indicate that the time will come. Music and film have entered the arena of libraries but have never overtaken the book in importance. The book is and will continue to be the nucleus of library services. For the time being there is nothing to suggest otherwise. And e-books are essentially books. They are books in a new form.

If we don’t pay attention to new developments, we have much to lose. If the public’s preferred form of reading in 10 years’ time is the e-book and we cannot deliver good services, we might just as well close down. It will mean we have not given our borrowers what they deserve. It is now that we have to find out how e-books should be offered to our borrowers. It is now that the shape of this future service has to be hammered out.

The Intellectual Property Rights Act paragraph 19 gives libraries in Norway the right to lend out books. This does not include e-books. Borrowing is restricted by the following sentence: “nor does it allow for lending of machine- readable examples of computer programs.” Although e-books are very like physical books in content, they are treated as program software by the Act. This is a conside- rable challenge for libraries and we must sit down and negotiate a solution so that we can lend out e-books. Another and more long-term solution would be to work to change the law so that the right to lend out also includes e-books.

Difficult start

E-books in Norway have experienced a difficult start and e-books in Norwegian libraries have been a long time coming.What is the reason for this? How should we Norwegian librarians tackle it? This is a relatively complex topic and one can approach it from a number of angles. My view is that of an employee in a library. I want the borrowers in Norwegian public libraries to have the best service possible. That is the foundation for further production, breadth and diversity of literature.

Norway is actually a country where all the conditions should be favourable to allow for rapid development in this area. We have one of the world’s bestdeveloped broadband networks, we spend a lot of money on electronic goods and we are one of the top nations when it comes to a reading population. We are also very quick to utilise new technology and we change our media habits in step with new developments. Both the people and the state have solid finances. So why have we not embraced e-books in Norway?

First and foremost it is because they have not been available. It was only in 2011 that it became possible to buy ebooks from the major Norwegian publishers, with a few notable exceptions. This is much later than in countries that we like to compare ourselves to. And when e-books finally arrived, the solutions were not optimal; especially when book buyers had expected the easy and convenient methods they were used to from Amazon and Apple. In seeking reasons for this hesitation it is easy to fall back on the ownership constellations in the book trade. The three largest Norwegian publishers own the three biggest bookshop chains. And who has the most to lose in the transition from physical books to ebooks? Probably those who distribute and sell: the physical bookshops. It is nevertheless easy to understand the publishers’ scepticism. We are a small and vulnerable language community. Consumers look to the USA and expect lower prices and good services. Norway is a small market, and export of literature is not big business either. In the long term, however, I still think that Norwegian publishers should push forward assertively on the e-book front. As it is now, more and more people choose to read books in English as they are so readily available on Kindle, or because the choice is just so much better. In the short term it is perhaps more profitable to let the printed books in the physical bookshops be the most comfortable solution, but the consequences long term may be fatal.

Give the borrowers a voice

A library’s right to lend out books in printed copies is laid down in the Intellectual Property Rights Act. E-books are not included here as they are treated as electronic intellectual property and fall into the same category as for example software programs for computers. We can disagree with this definition, but we must abide by the law as it is today. Consequently we are obliged to negotiate and find an opening for lendingout e-books. We must work to find a way to offer this service to our borrowers. It is a new situation, which demands new thinking and new methods from libraries.

Many organisations which have a hand in setting the agenda for today’s e-book debate in Norway also have the task of protecting their own profit margins. It is understandable. A whole industry feels it is under attack. Those of us who work in libraries must also protect our own profession and the survival of our institution. But in addition, we have a responsibility to obtain the best possible terms for our borrowers. There is no one else to ensure their voice is heard. There is no organisation that promotes the rights of the library users. It is our responsibility and it is important to remember that we should always keep that perspective.

Current situation

Libraries should not stand, cap in hand, silently accepting whatever is offered.We must demand good terms. In the transition to e-books, the terms and conditions for libraries must not be worse than they are today for printed books. That should be our minimum requirement. At present discussions are being held among the publishers, distributors and libraries. Everything points to a solution for lending of e-books, which copies today’s method of lending printed books. I am not certain this is the ideal solution but nevertheless it is the solution that is currently acceptable to Norwegian publishers.We have to abide by it and make the best of the situation we have. That means we must be able to demand the same advantages the printed books give us, and not just accept solutions that provide a poorer service for our borrowers.

Against this backdrop, the NLA – Norwegian Library Association (a nonprofit, independent organisation aiming to promote and develop library and information services) initiated the establishment of a committee that will define what is important for Norwegian public libraries when it comes to e-books. They agreed on six principles that should be employed in dialogue with other organisations in the book trade and in relation to cultural authorities. The principles represent the ideal situation, but we maintain that this is a realistic minimum requirement in today’s circumstances.We have tried to create principles that are as dynamic as possible so that we can tackle the transition to new technologies and new forms of distribution. The principles read as follows:

1. No difference between the choice of books for sale and those available to borrow. E-books destined for the general market place can also be bought in by libraries.

This point is quite straightforward.We cannot have an arrangement where libraries can only buy a selection of the range of titles. It cannot be so that some titles are reserved only for private sale and not to libraries. Our borrowers must be able to find the same titles in the library as in the bookshop.

2. No time restrictions. When e-books are for sale they should also be available for loan.

In other media we have witnessed examples of time restrictions or release windows. A film can premier on one continent but comes much later on another. Some time later it comes out on DVD. Finally it ends up being shown on a TV channel. The timeframe for a film is gauged so as to make as much money as possible in the biggest number of markets. This type of release window has also been mentioned in relation to e-books in Norway. The theory is to first offer the e-book for sale on the private market, wait until it has been saturated, and subsequently offer it to libraries to purchase in order to lend out. This is most unfortunate and will mean that libraries will not be offering up-to-date services.

3. Freedom of choice. Libraries must themselves be able to prioritise the books they offer to their borrowers.

Librarians are used to buying books. They know what borrowers in their area want to read and have experience of what is most in demand. This is simply about respect for our profession. We cannot have a situation where all that is on offer is a package of ebooks that the librarians have no control over. Media budgets are tight and the libraries must of course decide how the money should be spent.

4. Platform independence. Libraries must make all possible efforts to ensure that the e-books they offer can be read on as many different reading platforms and devices as possible.

There are many different types of electronic reading devices. Some people will want to read on other platforms than reading tablets. They may want to read on their PC or mobile phone. The library should offer solutions that work on as many of these platforms as possible. Of course there are closed platforms that we have no control over, but the phrase we have chosen to use here is “make all possible efforts”.We recognise that we cannot reach everyone, but we will try to reach as many as possible.

5. Libraries will meet the book trade’s standard requirement on copyright.

The book trade wants to have copyright on the e-books sold. That is something they decide on. As long as that is the norm, libraries cannot lend out books without copyright protection. We should not be associated with pirate copying.We must not be a source of illegal distribution of intellectual property. Although there are different opinions on this topic in the library community, we must abide by the views expressed by the owners of the intellectual property. It is as simple as that. Libraries can seize the opportunity to be an alternative to pirate copying. We can be the good, free service. Which is also legal. Why then would one choose the alternative, which is worse and illegal?

6. E-books purchased in the period where the Book Agreement applies, should be available to lend to one borrower at a time, an unlimited number of times.

We now get to the most debated point on the subject of the lending of ebooks, the actual heart of the discussion. How on earth should we lend them out? Should we think about copies and licenses? Should we consider price per lending period? Should we give the borrowers unlimited access to all content? The technology allows for a range of possibilities and within the public library service there are a number of different opinions. The most liberal advocates believe that it is not right for a library to lend out books that have copy protection. However, being realistic, we have to remember that we are working with an industry that is dependent on making money. If nobody makes any money from writing books, the majority of writers will stop writing. If the publishers don’t make any money from publishing books, they will simply stop. That is the reality today.We can also imagine that libraries will have a much greater role in the distribution of books than is the case today. Sales may be less important and loans perhaps more important. This assumes a large increase in the libraries’ budgets, which at present seems unrealistic. It will also lead to a connection between public services and access to literature in general, which can be a disadvantage. The path to state control and censorship of literature distribution could become all too easy.

So we should probably base our thinking on the fact that the relationship between sales and loans will be approximately what it is today. I think libraries themselves would want this; I think the authorities agree and I think the publishers would certainly not want to stretch to more than this. In practice this means that loans will be different from sales. Loans must have limitations. We have to have control over what we lend out.We must also have limitations on loan periods and renewals, just as we have today. In fact, this is all about translating the systems we have for lending printed books to the realities of lending e-books. But then it is important to preserve the advan- tages that printed books provide. The borrowers cannot be left with poorer terms after the transition from printed to e-books.

In principle number six we have proposed a minimum which is no worse than what we offer borrowers today, but neither is it any better. One book loaned to one borrower at a time, an unrestricted number of times. This applies to new books in the period covered by the Book Agreement (a voluntary agreement between Norwegian publishers and book-sellers that fixes prices on new books in order to protect and develop Norwegian language and literature). We would welcome a more flexible arrangement for backlist books, for example, a payment per loan or set prices for access to larger packages, if the libraries want such an arrangement. But the minimum must be that we have the same conditions as we have today for physical books. Compared to our neighbouring countries of Denmark and Sweden, the arrangement being discussed for Norway is much more restrictive and limited.

Wear and tear

Some publishers have claimed that we must introduce “digital wear and tear” on e-books, meaning that an e-book would stop working and the library would then buy a new copy after, for example, 25 loans. This is supposed to reflect the wear and tear suffered by printed books. It is claimed that libraries today buy in a book, lend it out until it is worn out and thereafter buy a new copy. That is not how it works. Libraries dispose of books, but it is because they are no longer borrowed or have become out of date, or because there are too many copies of one book. A library will often buy in many copies of a bestseller to meet the immediate demand. After a couple of years the demand for the book diminishes drastically. Then it is no longer rational to have so many copies either on the shelves or in the book stack. The most sensible thing to do is dispose of them.

Let us take an example from Drammen Public Library. The novel Berlinerpoplene by Anne B Ragde was published in 2004 and became a big success. In Drammen they purchased a total of 17 copies and these were all in circulation for the first year. Interest in the book decreased somewhat and many copies were left on the shelves. In 2006 the library had disposed of seven copies and had ten in circulation. Today the library has five copies on the shelves and these are still being borrowed, including the first copy, purchased in 2004, which has been borrowed 66 times to date. It is still in reasonable condition.

Some people have claimed that the books should have a limited timeframe, that for example they should stop working after three years and that we should then purchase them again. This would also be wrong. Berlinerpoplene, a printed book purchased in 2004, is still doing the rounds today.

Support arrangements and finances

Arts Council Norway’s purchasing arrangement has for many years been an important contributing factor to the building up of Norwegian library collections. It has led to Norwegian libraries  having a basic minimum range of new titles regardless of fluctuations in a library’s finances. In 2012 there will be a project to try out a purchase arrangement for e-books. This is important for libraries in three ways:

  • It is an acknowledgement that ebooks and libraries belong together. Norwegian cultural authorities want to have e-books distributed to the Norwegian people and libraries provide a suitable means of doing this.
  • It will ensure that libraries have a selection of e-books. Libraries’ media budgets are already tight and no library will have increased resources even though the users might want e-books.
  • It is an important step in terms of language policy and literature policy, which will ensure a broad production of Norwegian literature and good distribution to all the country’s libraries.

E-books in Norwegian libraries have yet to find their place. But at least it seems we are on the right path. There is dialogue between publishers and libraries; support structures are in the making, and distributors will soon be ready with suitable systems. Experience from Buskerud County also reveals that the borrowers are ready and waiting. They are enquiring about new forms and content. Hopefully we will soon be ready to deliver the goods.

Dag Erlend Lohne Mohn
Adviser Buskerud Country Library and
member of the Norwegian Library Association’s
Committee on E-books and Libraries
Dag.mohn AT

Dag Erlend Lohne Mohn Adviser Buskerud Country Library and member of the Norwegian Library Association’s Committee on E-books and Libraries