Online lending
Libraries at the click of a mouse

Logo Onleihe
Logo Onleihe | © divibib

No-cost access to digital media any time, anywhere – that’s the idea behind online lending. More than 300 libraries in Germany are already offering this Internet-based service. The way forward, or a bit of technical tomfoolery?

With the Internet, we can do anything, any time, anywhere: we can access information, chat with friends, go shopping, watch TV, study or read. Or visit the library. With online lending, the Internet-savvy library user doesn’t even have to leave home to borrow books, films or newspapers. With just a few mouse clicks, they can download the new bestseller by Eugen Ruge or the current issue of Spiegel magazine to their PC or mobile device within a matter of minutes – and it’s all free of charge. All they need is a library card.

A flying start

The benefits of online lending are obvious: users can borrow digital material any time, anywhere – from the comfort of their own homes or while they’re out and about – and it’s available 24/7. This makes online lending highly responsive to users’ individual needs, giving a far larger group of users access to the library. With online lending, people who don’t have time to visit the library due to their professional or domestic commitments, who are housebound or live in areas with poor transport can use the virtual library instead.

These benefits are recognised by the libraries themselves. The figures speak for themselves: in 2007, DiViBib GmbH, a subsidiary of ekz.bibliotheksservice GmbH, launched the first online lending schemes at four pilot public libraries in Hamburg, Cologne, Munich and Würzburg. Many others have followed suit. According to Linda Donalis from DiViBib, there are now more than 300 libraries in Germany offering the online service, either individually or as part of a consortium with other libraries, and the figure is set to rise to 350 by the end of 2011.

Online lending is proving popular with borrowers too: in Munich City Library, virtual lending has doubled year on year since 2007, although growth has levelled out at around 50 per cent in 2011. Out of a total of around 11 million loans in 2011, 120,000 media were lent out through the virtual scheme. “We’re happy with that,“ says Ernst Zimmermann, deputy head of the Acquisitions Department at Munich City Library. Between 5 and 10 per cent of the library’s customers have already used the virtual service. “That’s a larger percentage than the share of the population reading e-books,” Ernst Zimmermann emphasises. In Munich, then, the online scheme is proving to be a success.

“Online lending doesn’t sell itself”

But despite the many advantages of online lending, it’s not all good news – and this is mainly due to poor marketing. “Online lending doesn’t sell itself,” says Linda Donalis. When they first approach DiViBib, the libraries’ concepts are at widely varying stages of development, she explains. Some libraries are marketing the schemes very actively, keeping their staff informed about the latest developments and encouraging them to tell borrowers about it – so their experience of online lending is generally very positive. The scheme’s visibility on the library’s own website and publicity through the local press are other factors that are important for the successful rollout of online lending throughout the library’s service portfolio.

The downsides

The online portal for Munich’s virtual City Library is easy to access and navigate. There is a list of categories, with non-fiction and learning media featuring prominently alongside fiction. Choose an e-book, e-video or e-paper, and three symbols appear, showing the types of device that are suitable for downloading the digital item. And this is where one of the major problems with online lending becomes apparent: compatibility. It is often quite difficult to work out which format runs on which device. Many media can only be accessed on a PC, not on mobile e-readers, tablet PCs or Smartphones. This is because the number of media available in EPUB format is far too small: with DiViBib, it’s just 3,700 out of a total of 18,000.

Besides compatibility, technical issues, very short lending periods, especially for daily newspapers, and small stocks are other problems currently besetting online lending. “The stock of items available for online lending is smaller than the stock of our smallest library,” says Ernst Zimmermann. Like a reference library, a virtual library takes time to grow. New media have to be acquired on a regular basis in order to keep the stock up to date and generate a balanced mix – which raises cost issues as well. For small libraries in particular, joining a consortium is often the best of way of offering online lending. As part of a consortium, these libraries can expand their own stock of digital media very rapidly and become part of a sustainable, long-term online lending scheme at low cost.

Libraries using the DiViBib service acquire the media individually or in packages, with DiViBib negotiating the relevant licences with the publishers. As a rule, the licence only allows the item to be lent out once, so simultaneous loans are not possible – just like a real library. A digital rights management system ensures that the medium cannot be accessed on the user’s device once the lending period has expired and is also intended to protect the data from unauthorised copying. Nonetheless, publishers remain sceptical, largely due to a fear of piracy. What’s more, as no one knows how digital content will be distributed in future, the development of online lending “depends on the goodwill of the publishers”, says Zimmermann. Nonetheless, despite the various problems and uncertain prospects for the future, online lending is currently the only system that allows libraries to become part of the digital world. And it definitely has its appeal – especially for readers who decide, quite spontaneously, to relax with the latest Eugen Ruge on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Online lending at the Goethe-Institut

Whether in Egypt, India, Latvia, Serbia, Singapore, Uzbekistan, Vietnam or in many other countries: worldwide more than 60 Goethe-Institut libraries offer their users the Onleihe lending service.