Digital platform of libraries Onleihe Has To Do A Lot of Persuading

Onleihe | Photo (detail): © Lech Rowinski

Onleihe (i.e., online + on loan), the leading digital platform of libraries in Germany, is facing a multitude of challenges. Jörg Meyer, its executive director, explains the biggest ones.

Mr Meyer, what role do public libraries play for publishers’ e-book business?

An ever smaller one. This is because the e-book market is growing disproportionately, but the libraries don’t have a bigger media budget at their disposal. According to the trade association journal Bitkom, 286 million euros were spent on e-books in 2013. The budget of all public libraries together totals only 100 million euros. Of this, they spend between one and two per cent on e-books; in 2009 it was still 30 per cent. This development mirrors the analogue world where public libraries have a one to two per cent share in the total book market. So they’re not the gravediggers of the e-book market in Germany.

Is there a trend among publishers to limit the time of e-book licenses for libraries?

I don’t notice a trend at present. Some publishers are thinking about a time limit. But there’s certainly an understanding for the low purchasing power of media budgets, so that the loan periods are longer here than, for instance, is usual in the United States. Aftermarket prices are also significantly reduced. In summer 2014 the Thieme Publishing Group will introduce a two-year time limit for licenses, but the aftermarket price will be reduced to 50 per cent. Thereafter the medium remains for an unlimited space of time in the holdings of the library. Other publishers have time limits of four years. But these are only isolated cases amongst 1,200 contracts with publishers.

Different licenses

To what extent can Onleihe meet the desire of library users for current publications?

Dr Jörg Meyer, executive director of Onleihe Dr Jörg Meyer, executive director of Onleihe | © ekz Positive for libraries are our XL licenses, since they allow a quota for parallel borrowing during their time-limit. The library acquires a publication at three times the price of the bound e-book. Up to 20 users can then simultaneously borrow the medium in the area of fiction, and up to 25 in the non-fiction segment. When this quota is exhausted, two copies with a serial license remain in the library. Currently we’re offering about 20,000 publications in this license form.

Publishers such as C.H. Beck and Kosmos make library licenses significantly more expensive than end-user licenses. Could this model establish itself?

That publishers demand a significantly higher price for library use of serial licenses is an absolute exception. The libraries “punish” this by extremely limited purchases, so that this model is hardly likely to prevail.

What is the status of negotiations with the publishers of the Holtzbrink Group – including Fischer, Rowohlt and KiWi – who so far have refused to participate in Onleihe?

We’re in detailed discussions. But I can’t divulge any information about the current status; I hope you understand.

We try to satisfy the requirements of good data quality

What progress has been made towards an increased integration of foreign-language publications?

Foreign-language publications are a challenge, particularly with regard to the question of the quality of the metadata. We have, after all, to make sure that the content isn’t seditious or hate speech, pornographic or of some other offensive nature. What library software can process Chinese or Cyrillic characters? With the help of foreign-language staff, we try to satisfy the requirements of good data quality. We’re currently incorporating Russian publications. But foreign publishers often have a fear of piracy. Here too we have to do a lot of persuading. Our goal at Onleihe is systematically to increase our holdings on relevant foreign-language media. It’s easier for us with English, French and Spanish. Here there’ll soon be a significant expansion of our services.

How does it look in the area of German as a foreign language?

Here too we’re constantly expanding our services. But textbook publishers are currently extremely cautious about granting licenses.

Onleihe is to undergo a technical re-launch, which will go under the name of “Neue Onleihe” [i.e., New Onleihe]. What is the status of this project?

This is the big project of the next 24 months. We have to open the platform to even more content; we’re aiming at at least one million media. We have to include more foreign-language content, open ourselves to flexible license models and respond to the greatly increased use in terms of numbers of downloads and mobile devices. To do this, we must secure high stability and efficient internal processes. And in all this we mustn’t ignore user-friendliness. There’s certainly room for improvement in Onliehe’s search function. Here users demand Google level quality.

Will it also be possible to return borrowed publications before the end of the lending period?

There will be changes even in the existing system in this respect. The early return of e-books should become possible in the third or fourth quarter of 2014. But our Digital Rights Management is limited by the existing system. Publishers don’t allow downloads without DRM; we have to accept this framework. This naturally applies to the management of terminals, such as the proprietary Amazon Kindle. I think it rather unlikely that Amazon will lend an ear to the concerns of public libraries and open up the Kindle world.

Do publishers respond correspondingly with more reserve towards Onleihe?

On the contrary. Every week I sign a new cooperation agreement.

The Goethe-Institut’s “Onleihe”

Whether in Egypt or Vietnam: More than 60 Goethe-Institut libraries around the world offer users the service “Onleihe:” The selection is immense: several thousand circulating e-media, from children's books and young people's literature, current fiction, non-fiction, daily and weekly newspapers, to cookbooks, audio books and learning materials for German as a foreign language.