e-books and libraries A Success Story?

Frank Simon-Ritz
Frank Simon-Ritz | Photo (detail): © Leo Pompinon

Libraries in Germany are lending out more e-books than ever before – Goethe.de talked about this development to Dr. Frank Simon-Ritz, Chairman of the DBV, the German Library Association.

Dr. Simon-Ritz, in 2012 Germany’s leading lending system, “Onleihe”, enabled about 600 public libraries all over Germany to provide their readers with a selection of about 600,000 e-books; they were lent out about 2.5 million times. In 2009 there were only about 200,000 digital books, which were lent out about 250,000 times. How do you rate this positive development in the reading of e-books borrowed from libraries?

It is not just a trend that has affected libraries. The basic question is – how well has the e-book established itself as a new medium, as a new data carrier, on the cultural level? In USA, for example, e-books are much more prevalent than in Germany. In Germany the share of turnover on the whole book market in 2012 was around 2.4 per cent – the year before it was only 0.8 per cent.

It is now becoming apparent that this high growth rate is going to continue, which is why the e-book as a medium and a data carrier is going to be playing a more and more important role in the future.

This trend is also reflected in the library sector, where e-books have become an integrated part of the standard line-up and are also very much in demand.

A replica of the analogue world

For purposes of clarity – how in fact are e-books lent out by the libraries?

When borrowing an e-book from a library, the reader goes through a process that is more or less a replica of the analogue world: the lending period is limited to a certain length of time and is allocated a certain time stamp. As a library user I mostly borrow the book for two weeks and during this period I am authorised to access it. This access connects me with an external server, from which I can download the book on to the device of my choice.

Most libraries work in cooperation with a company called divibib that negotiates licences for e-books with publishing houses and then makes them available via the “Onleihe” system. The document is protected by what is known as “digital rights management”, meaning that it cannot be illegally distributed.

Do e-books have any advantages over the conventional book?

The discussion on e-books really ought to sharpen our awareness that it is not decisive whether the book is printed on paper and bound in a cover. The book itself is actually somewhat immaterial. Books are about content and not sheets of paper. It is definitely not a case of e-books dealing a death-blow to the conventional book – it is simply a new way of publishing books in digital form and, no matter what, there will always be both good and bad books. Whether they are published in printed or digital form is absolutely of secondary importance. No way does the e-book represent any danger at all for the conventional book.

A danger to the educational mission

To what extent, in your opinion, are the commercial lenders competition for the public libraries?

At the moment there are four commercial lenders. They assume that, in the case of e-books, the actual purchasing is not the buyer’s preferred option – after all the reader may not want to store it on his tablet forever; it might well be the case that for some books he would be quite happy with an access authorisation over a period of time.

Of course the commercial lender is a model that has certain similarities with a library. There is, however, one significant difference – libraries are fulfilling a certain social obligation, i.e. to provide the general public, irrespective of social class or income, with access to information, knowledge and entertainment. At the moment a few individual publishing houses are refusing to licence e-books for the libraries – this, however, is calling the educational mission of the libraries into question.

Libraries encourage people

Publishers are afraid that if e-books can be borrowed from libraries, sales will drop off as readers will dispense with buying a book or an e-book. Is this concern well founded?

I get the impression from the cultural debate on “Book versus E-Book” that borrowing e-books from libraries is not a priority topic. I would in fact bet my last bottom dollar on it – publishing houses are not going to collapse because libraries are lending out e-books.

The discussion going on at the moment is similar to the one we had in the 1960s, when the issue was whether public libraries should lend books. Back then people believed it would bring about the downfall of the entire publishing sector, because people would not buy books anymore if they could borrow them from a library. Things, however, did not turn out that way, on the contrary – libraries encourage people to read more and that often leads to them buying their favourite books.

For libraries, however, one thing is quite clear – if they are to remain modern and move with the times, they will have to provide readers with digital media. If they are prevented from doing this, they will turn into book museums.

Is statutory regulation necessary?

Do you see any way out of the discussion with the publishing houses?

After the debate in the 1960s a change in copyright law was finally agreed upon in which libraries were given the right to acquire every book published in Germany and make it available to their readers. At the same time a public lending right program (system of royalties) was introduced, by which any possible financial losses on the part of authors was offset with the aid of a collecting society. I am afraid that if no binding agreement concerning licensing law is reached between the libraries and the publishing houses, the only way out will be to regulate it with legislation.

In this connection, the DBV, the German Library Association, has proposed an e-book royalty fee in order to compensate for the libraries enjoying the privilege of lending out e-books.

So what is the bottom line? Are e-books and libraries really the success story we all thought?

I am convinced that e-books and libraries are going to be a success story, because the modern library of today is going to be dominated more and more by electronic media.