Off the Shelf: E-books' popularity makes them worth high cost
If there's ever been a time for e-books and other digital library resources to shine, it's been these past few months.
And shine they have.
Ever since physical library access was restricted in March, Southwest Public Libraries has worked to expand access to digital materials, and it is clear patrons are making use.
E-books, an already popular library service, have surged in popularity. During April and May, the library circulated more than 23,000 digital loans through the lending apps Overdrive and Libby -- an increase of 27% over the same time last year.
Anyone can download these apps or visit the library's website and log in with their card number and PIN to access tens of thousands of e-books and e-audiobooks for free.
While there are always thousands of titles available for immediate borrowing at any given time, other titles may have waitlists. With no physical materials involved, patrons sometimes ask why access to digital titles can't be immediate and unlimited.
The answer lies with cost and publisher licensing.
Current publisher licensing is not friendly to libraries. Like physical copies, libraries must pay for each individual digital copy of a title -- but, in the case of digital, are charged prices two to four times higher than what an individual consumer pays.
Additionally, in most cases, libraries do not own the copy outright, but are merely "renting" licensing rights for a limited time.
This licensing model, termed "metered access," means libraries have access to that copy only for a certain period of time or until a certain number of circulations is reached. Once that license is expired, libraries have to purchase a new one in order to retain access to that copy of the title.
Publishers that offer perpetual-use licenses in which libraries purchase each copy once and then own it forever are increasingly rare.
Whether it is metered access or perpetual use, most licenses usually allow for only one user per copy at one time.
Libraries aim to keep waitlists short and will purchase additional digital copies based on the number of hold requests. Even so, cost can quickly hamper that goal.
Take the popular title "Where the Crawdads Sing." The novel by Delia Owens was released in August 2018 but continues to be highly popular and waitlisted.
The Digital Downloads Collaboration, a partnership of central Ohio libraries sharing cost and access to digital materials, of which Southwest Public Libraries is a member, has purchased at least 391 digital licenses to that title since publication. At a library license cost of $55 per copy, that means more than $20,000 has been spent on access to that title alone.
For comparison, a Kindle copy costs an individual consumer $14.99 on Amazon.
In 2019, the Digital Downloads Collaboration spent a combined $2.4 million on digital e-books and e-audiobooks. The collaboration has circulated more than 2 million digital loans this year.
It's safe to say that digital books are becoming an increasingly important library service -- and we're happy to see our patrons enjoying it.
Meanwhile, next time you're waitlisted for that digital bestseller, know we're doing our best to get it to you as quickly as possible.
Southwest Public Libraries is working to reopen its doors soon. Until then, the library offers no-contact pickup of reserved books and is accepting returns during limited hours.
Go to swpl.org for more information.
The library also will hold its Summer Reading Challenge online through July 25. Special performers, programs and activities are featured daily on the library's Facebook page.
Mark Shaw is the director of Southwest Public Libraries.