Onleihe “Virtual public libraries have taken off”

Hannelore Vogt
Hannelore Vogt | Photo (detail): © Südpol-Redaktionsbüro/T. Köster

In 2007, the first German libraries launched the “Onleihe” – a system of lending digital media via the Internet. After getting off to something of a slow start, it is almost impossible to imagine any big city library not offering the service nowadays. Goethe.de talked to Hannelore Vogt, director of Cologne Public Library.

Ms Vogt, Würzburg Public Library, whose director you were at the time, was one of the first libraries in Germany to launch the Onleihe system back in May 2007. Just a year later, you said that the virtual public library had not really got off the ground. How are things looking today?

The Onleihe system has now really taken off, and is very much the state of the art. The public libraries in Würzburg, Cologne, Hamburg and Munich were the pioneers of the time, but now the Onleihe service is offered by most of Germany’s big city libraries.

From feedback obtained from our customers at Cologne Public Library, it is quite clear that no-one needs convincing any longer. We increased our Onleihe budget last year by 62 percent, and spend 105,000 euros on eBooks every year – and yet we are still unable to fully meet the demand of our customers.

By continuously monitoring use and customer feedback, however, we do our best to make our services as attractive and demand-oriented as possible.

Boom in eBook lending

How has use developed in recent years?

For several years we saw steady but fairly slow growth. Since 2012, however, the Onleihe system has been booming – or to be more precise, since Christmas 2011. That was when the online book retailer Amazon started heavily advertising the Kindle eBook reader, which raised the profile of eBooks as a whole. In 2012 we then saw usage soar by 95 percent!

At present, we lend approximately 13,000 eBooks per month and envisage a total of 150,000 loans in 2013. Of course, this is still a very small proportion of total book loans, also in terms of the collection size: 20,000 eBooks compete with a collection of 500,000 print books.

Offering eBooks entails quite considerable costs for libraries, after all …

That’s true, but I see it as an important investment in the future. A new product obviously requires a certain amount of preparation time. If we had only launched the Onleihe service at the end of 2011, we would now be lagging hugely behind demand.

Incidentally, customers now take it for granted that a modern library will offer eBooks. They no longer ask whether we have eBooks, but how many and which titles we have.

Very few new customers, but many parallel users

Who are the main users of the Onleihe service?

The main demographic when it comes to eBook users is the 40 to 49 age group. 60 percent are women. And many of them are big readers.

I have to say that the Onleihe service has brought us relatively few new customers. It tends to be parallel users who feel at home in both worlds, the real and the virtual. Incidentally, we have generally found that reading of eBooks has not necessarily reduced the reading of print books.

Which eBooks are in particular demand?

There is quite a lot of demand for fiction. Books providing advice are also very much in demand, as of course are audio books, which are obviously predestined for download. In addition, daily and weekly newspapers are popular.

How has the Onleihe service changed for libraries?

Libraries can now purchase different levels of access to an eBook, which means that they can allow several people to use a book at once. Known as XL lending, this is a positive development. As you can perhaps imagine, it’s not easy to make our customers understand that a digital medium is out on loan.

eBook taster sessions

Do you still advertise the Onleihe service?

Yes, we advertise the Onleihe all the time. Since October 2011, we have been offering a weekly eBook reader taster session, where library users can find out more and try out the readers for themselves under supervision. We have all the standard eBook readers in the library for users to test, and we even loan them out too.

What is more, we make sure that our virtual services are clearly visible within the library. QR codes at various points around the library guide users to our electronic services. We also place bookmarks in pre-ordered media, drawing the attention of users to the eBook lending service.

When the Onleihe was launched, eBook readers were still quite basic …

Luckily that has changed now, and today a wide range of good eBook readers is available. That said, these days they tend to be seen more as an interim technology, and there is a clear trend towards reading books on mobile devices that have more than one function – such as smartphones and, above all, tablets. This is a huge growth market that is also bound to have an impact on the Onleihe service.