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Brave new world: e-books in public libraries?

Catherine Stihler MEP insists that e-books should be treated in the same way as printed books and offered to citizens en masse through public libraries

The Open Knowledge campaign is gathering momentum. It aims to improve e-book access in libraries in Scotland and across the European Union. For as Andrew Carnegie said: “There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the free public library.” To future-proof this precious public space, we need to act now or knowledge will only be accessible to those who can afford to pay.

Carnegie knew, more than a hundred years ago, that knowledge was power and libraries could provide empowerment to those who had potential but did not have the financial resource to pay. The same is true for today.

The arrival of the e-book has already profoundly changed the world of publishing and this method will become the norm for future generations’ reading habits. Yet despite this many obstacles remain on the road to achieving the right balance of meeting the needs of readers, libraries, authors and publishers.

In the relatively short time e-books have been available, there is evidence of a huge appetite for them. If libraries are to grow to meet the needs of modern communities, e-lending must be an integral part of their future development.

In the same way that new technology in the form of e-readers and tablets are changing the way people access information and books, digital lending will soon start to transform the way people use their local library services. With these changes ongoing, we need to act to ensure everyone affected – authors, publishers, libraries and citizens – will benefit from an effective service. There are currently many unanswered questions about the best way forward.

What we need is the right balance between the needs of the four groups affected. It is important the right service is provided to library users, yet authors must be fairly remunerated. I do not believe e-books will ever completely replace printed books but we must find a way for them to complement them.

Offering e-books in libraries has opened the services up to a whole new audience and providing access to information to local communities has always been a fundamental part of the principles of public libraries. In my view, e-books should be treated in the same way as printed books. The same rules should apply when borrowing them and as a result I can see no reason why e-lending should damage the publishing industry.

E-lending might allow you to borrow a book at the click of a button, although in today’s world you can just as easily buy a book at the click of a mouse. It has always been as easy to buy a printed book as it has been to borrow one, yet there is no evidence it has damaged book sales. An option to buy books from the same author or books of the same genre could also be made available via a link at the end of any e-book downloaded from a library. As many e-books are read on tablets, this could provide a real boost to sales of digital books.

At present, e-book lending is a very small part of library loans. Despite this, footfall in libraries is currently dropping. There is now a need more than ever to future-proof our libraries. A library should provide so much more than a place to borrow books, it should be a space seen as a community hub and a centre for learning with access to technology. Further links with local clubs, groups, schools and businesses should be explored and relevant pilot projects set up. I would also like to see the possibility of some council services being offered from public libraries explored, this could help build a positive case for retaining the hugely important spaces for the future.

There is also a severe lack of case studies and research on e-lending to draw on. All interested parties must get together to explore the benefits and drawbacks of the service and how each can be improved. We all need to work together on digital lending to establish the best way forward.

At present, there is too much focus on the negative aspects of e-lending by many of the parties involved. What we need is to be forward thinking, open to new ideas and a willingness to work together. If you believe that knowledge is power and that libraries are a precious public space we need to future-proof then please support the campaign and follow @OpenKnowledge13 on Twitter.

Catherine Stihler is a Labour Party MEP for Scotland and a member of the European Parliament Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee

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