Why can’t libraries charge for books?

overdrive librariesTwo articles in today’s Morning Links dovetailed nicely for me. The first was on a plan that Overdrive Books has to charge for movies on a pay-per-use basis. The second was on the struggle libraries are having to balance eBook acquisition with customer demand.

It struck me, as it often does when reading about the libraries, how limiting it must be to try and problem-solve when you are constrained by an outdated model. Libraries cannot meet demand because they are limited by a model which says only one person can sign out each book at a time, and they are limited by their mandate to provide said books for free.

But who says these two limitations have to be a given? If Overdrive can charge for use for movies now, why can’t they charge for books?

I’m not saying libraries need to become pseudo-bookstores here. I know some libraries do have an affiliate link where patrons can purchase a book. But why can’t we combine the old approach with this new one a little? The book is free to borrow—and can always be free—if you’re willing to wait in line for it. Be 47 out of 49 on the hold list if you want to. Your turn will come.

But if you badly want to read the book, why not enable an option to pay a small fee get the book at once, not as a purchase but as a rental? The fee can be split between the library and Overdrive. Everyone wins—you get instant access to the book, and you make the queue shorter for those who do want to wait for it.

8 Comments on Why can’t libraries charge for books?

  1. I just can’t understand where libraries come into the equation for eBooks at all. The only function of a library building is to provide local storage for physical items which people want or need to have immediately. Once they can download those items from an online supplier, the whole reason for the library’s existence is gone.

    The relatively new Online Library at https://openlibrary.org already has far more of the eBooks that I want to read than any accessible physical collection in my state (NSW) and possibly in Australia. If ‘libraries’ want to continue to exist, this is the kind of thing they should be doing — scanning their unique stuff and putting it online. But asking people to walk or drive to some central location just so they can download stuff stored in Baluchistan or Vladivostok, instead of simply doing it from home… I don’t get it.

  2. To me, the idea of paying for e-books in this way is a truly terrifying idea.

    In the US, public libraries are supposed to be open to all and provide basic services without charge. What you are talking about would basically amount to a two-tiered system with one level of service for those who pay for it and another level for those who don’t. In many cities, the poor and the homeless are extensive users of library services. That demographic would be disproportionately affected by this type of system.

    Given the current state of many library budgets, I have grave concerns over Overdrive charging for movies for many of the same reasons. Our local library had issues with this back in the days of videotape. If collection decisions are made based on paying patrons, the needs of the overall community are likely to suffer.

  3. Joanna Cabot // June 25, 2014 at 9:12 pm //

    I don’t see why it’s terrifying—the poor are already waiting to read, because most new releases don’t have enough copies. If those who don’t wan to wait can pay a small fee to exit the waiting list, it will make the wait time shorter for those who don’t want to pay, and they will actually benefit under this system. And the money used for the fee can go to other services which they benefit from.

    I am not suggesting removing the fundamental library bedrock of free access to information and resources. I think there does need to always be free access. But I don’t see anything wrong with a small user fee for those who want to leave the waiting list for those who truly need it.

  4. Public libraries have been using this model for many years. Just type in “public library rental books” in your browser for examples. Offhand I don’t know of any rental programs for electronic media, but the basic idea has been around for quite a while.

  5. It is terrifying to me because it changes the fundamental system the library is based on. Material is available to all members of the community on a first come, first serve basis. The poor are already disadvantaged in their access to computers, the Internet, ereaders, etc.

    What you are suggesting would turn the public library system into a freemium service. In those situations, the items that bring in money are generally given priority in budget and acquisitions. That means tough choices in libraries just got tougher.

    A fundamental principle of the public library is that basic services are free. If there is a two-tier system in place, does that mean that e-books are no longer a basic service?

  6. “But asking people to walk or drive to some central location just so they can download stuff stored in Baluchistan or Vladivostok, instead of simply doing it from home… I don’t get it.”

    I don’t get it either. Maybe because libraries DO let you download ebooks from home. Yours doesn’t?

  7. Katherine, I actually took up the eBook lending option provided by a library in Sydney (not public — private; perhaps the last School of Arts library in Australia), and I found that they had about a hundred ebooks of which I could borrow, from memory, two at a time. Most of them were public domain titles available from Gutenberg anyway. I couldn’t figure out how to return the books, so I couldn’t try a new one for two weeks. I gave up after about a month.

    That was a year ago, so maybe things have changed. But the internet is all about disintermediation. If the provision of free eBooks is going to be worth much in the long run, it has to cover a huge selection, not the few thousand typically available in a local library; and the only rational way to do that is through some centralised site like the Open Library.

    If the government wants to give people access to free books — which I support wholeheartedly — then the way to do it is by funding central online repositories (and relaxing copyright laws), not by paying for the establishment of bricks-and-mortar buildings and their staff in every second suburb. It’s a little complicated because libraries usually come out of local government funding, but it shouldn’t be too hard to get it right.

  8. Jon Jermey said “The only function of a library building is to provide local storage for physical items which people want or need to have immediately. ”

    Jon I understand that things are different there in Australia than in the US but that is a really really outdated idea of what libraries actually do.

    Of our physical collection well over 60% is DVD, Audio book, Video Games and Music CDs. However only about 50% or less of the physical collection is actually used by customers. We provide Internet Access to a great many customers every day, printing, faxing, scanning, etc. We have meeting rooms and conference centers. We provide centers for After School programs and during the summer some libraries replace schools as teaching centers. We have Maker Spaces with 3D printers, digitizers and other creative software.

    Then you get into all the virtual things that happen. Between providing wi-fi for customers who bring their own devices to access from home to all the databases, ebooks, streaming movies, free music downloads, etc. etc. etc.

    We stopped being warehouses for dead trees a LONG time ago.

    If your local library is like that I am sorry for you.

    BOB

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