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Ebooks in Derbyshire libraries

Thu, 21 Feb 2013

Thank you to the author of the article Robert Gent for allowing us to re-publish this. The article originally appeared in CILIP Update, February 2013

Derbyshire County Council has been operating an ebooks loan service since late July 2011. The service is available free of charge to anyone with a Derbyshire address. All applications are checked to ensure they meet this criterion.

The supplier chosen was Askews and Holts Ltd, the council’s supplier of adults’ and children’s books. Their service offered a number of advantages:

  • A user friendly interface
  • The ability to download on to a variety of PC and mobile devices (with the exception of Amazon’s Kindle)
  • Reasonable annual maintenance costs, meaning that the funding directed to the purchase of content was optimised
  • A discount on the purchase price of every title
  • An acceptable range of material, given the restrictions imposed by publishers,
  • The fact that titles were purchased by the library service without time limit, rather than being leased, as was the case with at least one other major supplier
  • Access to a good range of management information
  • The ability to ‘swap out’ unborrowed titles and replace them with alternatives, at no charge

The service proved popular from the start and after fifteen months had 4,896 registered users. New members are joining at the rate of over 230 every month.

It is encouraging to note that 25% of all registered users are either new to libraries, or had not visited a library for over a year, which suggests that ebook services appeal to those who are time-poor, for example, those who commute to work from rural Derbyshire. There may also be people for whom traditional library-based services hold little appeal, but who are comfortable and enthusiastic participants in the world of social media and the Web. Most importantly, there is evidence that people who are visually-impaired are discovering the advantages of ereaders which can greatly help accessibility.

Derbyshire County Council has a Gold Card scheme which combines the concessionary travel and library membership card for older and disabled people, including those with visual impairment, with a wide range of discounts from leisure and retail outlets. The scheme has its own magazine which is widely circulated. A third of registered ebook users are Gold Card holders, suggesting that this is a service which has much to offer older people, housebound and disabled users and those with visual impairment.

A selection of user comments

23,500 titles were issued between July 2011 and September 2012; if the ebooks service were a branch library it would be the 30th busiest of Derbyshire’s 45 libraries. Here is a selection of positive comments:

"Due to a stroke in 2008 I am severely disabled, cannot speak or eat and many other problems, so I enjoy a good book.
All I wanted to know about e-book borrowing is clearly signed and easy to find on your web site. It is very user-friendly and attractively laid out. (I am quite new to using a computer, and nearly 60!) I was thinking of getting a Kindle e-reader but as I won’t be able to download your e-books I will have to look at other brands. As I already have a Derbyshire Library card I am now going to have a look at the e-books available to borrow. Well done Derbyshire."

"I live in the Peak District and commute to London during the week, so I am unable to use building based libraries due to the opening hours. Your ebook service has enabled me to use the Derbyshire Library Service once again, and the ebook format is particularly suitable for my journey."

"Another reader called to say she has dyslexia and in the past read, on average, one book per year. Since the launch of the ebook service she has averaged more than a book a months, and finds the ability to adjust the typeface and the background colour very helpful.
Derbyshire libraries have purchased over 3,300 titles to date and on average around 40% are on loan at any one time. The service does not include out of copyright material; instead, users are directed to other sites such as Project Gutenberg, where classic titles are available for downloads free of charge."

Reasons for success

The service received extensive advance publicity; users were invited to sign up on the county council Website and received an email notification when the service went live. Local media have shown enormous interest and there has been a steady stream of press and radio interviews as the service hit various milestones.

The council’s Communications Department has offered extensive support, including running competitions for adults and young people, with iPads as prizes for people who borrow items. Crucially, the service has proved easy to access and very few users have contacted the service for support. On-screen help is comprehensive and most of the enquiries received have been from people who had not realised that the service was not accessible via Kindle. In all interviews and publicity the council has been at pains to present this as an added service which is not designed to replace or undermine traditional library provision.

It is clear that people are willing to try a service which is free at the point of delivery, and stick with it if it meets their needs.
The major issue facing Derbyshire and all other public library providers is the paucity of material available for purchase. This means that the purposive reader of, say, literary fiction now has a very restricted choice.

We believe that our service demonstrates that ebook lending is not a threat. There has been no reduction in library visits or issues – in fact, the newly refurbished Chesterfield Library, already the fifth busiest in the UK, is attracting record numbers of visitors. Of all those ebook users who were new to libraries (around 1,250 people), 30% have also gone on to borrow physical items from a local library. Ebooks are enabling the library service to reach out to new users and to those who find physical access to a library difficult – particularly significant in a large rural county, and one from which many residents commute to work in surrounding conurbations.

Publishers who fear that free lending will leading to unrestrained piracy of copyright material should be reassured by the levels of security built into the Derbyshire system, which includes identity checking, digital rights management and analysis of use to identify unusual patterns of borrowing.

Nor is there any convincing evidence that ebook lending will undermine the sales of electronic and printed books. It is disappointing that publishers fail to recognise that public libraries, far from being a threat, actually stimulate demand for books and reading in all forms, and that this is of positive benefit to the whole industry. In refusing to release titles for purchase by public libraries they are tilting at windmills.

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