E-Books: A New Technology for You, A New Headache for Libraries

Leave it to the electronic age to make something simple complicated.

Like, say, library books.

You visit the library, pull the book of your choosing off the shelf, check it out, and bring it back a couple weeks later. Right? Wrong. Electronic books have convoluted the library check-out process as we know it.

Turns out that some folks have become wise to the e-book section on their public library’s website, and instead of having to physically travel to the library and check out a print copy, they’ve opted to borrow an electronic copy from the library with a simple mouse click.

The big man at the publisher’s office claims this will diminish his own print and electronic book sales, claiming people would much rather check out a book for free than pay for it. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think I can remember a bookstore ever suing a library back when print copies were all the rage.

Last I checked, books – print or electronic – have to be purchased, regardless, and if a library is purchasing the book, they would then be free to distribute it at their own discretion.

An electronic book can only be lent to one person at a time. That’s it. They have the same amount of time as someone reading a print copy to “return” it, after which time, the electronic copy is returned into the possession of the library once more. If anyone should complain here, the library should, because they’re going to have a hard time collecting late fees when everyone’s books are automatically returning themselves.

No, an electronic book is not going to ever run the risk of being stolen, lost, ripped, stained, or needing to be replaced. When a print copy reaches the end of its lifetime, the library naturally has to purchase a physical replacement. How often does a library face the need to replace a book? The ones I’ve checked out have always been ones used for years, and – more often than not – decades.

You're the 27th checkout? I'm afraid I can't let you do that, Dave.

You’re the 27th checkout? I’m afraid I can’t let you do that, Dave.

Are you publishers saying that, 30 years down the line from now, you’d like the library to purchase a “replacement” copy of the same title that – were it a print copy – should have since worn out? Maybe. And maybe that’s not a bad idea. But publishers trying to limit the books purchased to 26 checkouts each would be akin to repossessing their printed counterparts before the 27th person came along to check it out. If you’re going to place a number on something like that, make it a little more reasonable, and actually take the time to do the math to compute, realistically, how many times a book is checked-out before it needs to be replaced.

These “problems” are all made under the assumption that the number of free library check-outs will surmount the number of e-books sold. Never mind the fact some folks like to have more than two weeks to get their reading done. Never mind the fact some people (like myself) still don’t own – nor intend to own – a Kindle, Nook, or general variant of these e-book whatchamacallits. And never mind the fact there are a good number of folks out there who prefer a hard, printed copy of their reading material.

For some, borrowing books is more of a burden than it is a convenience. Even when it is free to borrow a book, and even when the library check-out process can be done online, it still leaves the reader with a limited timeframe with which to enjoy their book. Sometimes, a week – maybe two – is far from enough time to legitimately enjoy a book without rushing through it.

Reading will always come down to a matter of preference. Step on any Metra train making the morning commute into the city, and you’ll likely find several people reading the books: one, reading an actual, paper copy, another, reading it on his smartphone, another, on his Kindle, and likely perhaps scrolling through it on his laptop. They are all reading the same material, just in a different manner with a different device. All of them are accomplishing the same task, and all of them have made a choice as to which medium it is they prefer.

Heck, some of them may even be reading the electronic copy checked out from their local library. But I guarantee you that they all aren’t.

What’s your stance on electronic reading devices? Do you think that free checkouts will have an impact on sold e-books?

Image credit to Elizabeth Thomsen.

Eric Labanauskas

Eric is a data entry specialist and contributing writer for the QLP Blog Squad. He is a city boy with a country heart, with an appetite for anything chicken-fried. He has studied as an apprentice at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, performed across the country as Buddy Holly in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," and can tie a bow tie by himself without the aid of a mirror. 1950's rock 'n roll is his soundtrack, especially while on road-trips with his lovely girlfriend. Suffice it to say, he is also the owner of some good cocktail party stories from his many experiences. You can also connect with Eric on Google+.


  1. Mandy Kilinskis

    I’m with you, Eric. I don’t think that limiting library checkouts to only 26 times is anywhere near the realm of reason. That equals to about a year’s access. And as you said, paper copies sit on the shelves for decades before being replaced (or more likely, tossed, sold, or donated elsewhere).

    I could be way off here, but I have a feeling that the people that still choose the library for paper books (e.g. my mother and grandmother) are the ones that would use it for ebooks. Those of us that still buy physical copies of books (e.g. me) would be more likely to just buy the ebook. I, too, like my time to peruse a book or ebook and not be limited by a two week time frame.

    I guess it boils down to the rent/own mindset. And some ebook publishing greed. Since ebooks cost less to produce than paper, why are they all up in arms around getting libraries to buy them so many times?

    • Eric

      Shelley and I had this conversation last night about technology and sales. Paper catalogs, specifically. You start trying to sell things only with .pdf catalogs, you exclude half the market. You only sell your products via a printed catalog, you’re missing most the younger generation. Surely, there’s got to be some sort of comfortable, middle ground to be reached.

      When I was a kid, and had all the time in the world, I’d read novels in two, three days. Easy. But in my adulthood, I’d almost think it’d be impossible to finish a sizable book in two weeks. Moreover, most of the books I buy are for the sake of reference: I like to have them around to refer to, well, forever.

      And your last point? Exactly, Mandy. It’s not like they’re going to get all iTunes about it, and sell a book for $0.99 whose hardcover variant sells for almost $20.

  2. Jill Tooley

    I didn’t realize that libraries were limited on the number of e-book checkouts per item! That seems SO silly to me, especially when you consider that physical copies get years of mileage out of them (as you mentioned). Shouldn’t e-books be THAT much easier, since they don’t really wear out or get lost? Maybe that’s too easy. Is this a copyright stipulation, or an arbitrary number?

    There seems to be a lot of controversy here; although I feel for the publishers, I am curious if the actual books’ authors have to say anything on the subject. Or if it even matters to them. Hmmm…

    Experts have been denouncing the relevancy of physical books for a while now, but I wonder if we’ll see a complete e-book takeover during our time on this planet. That will be a sad, sad day!

    • Eric

      Honestly, if they could somehow scientifically measure how many times a book is checked-out until it’s “totaled,” maybe – just maybe – they’d have a case when it comes to charging per every X amount of rentals. Calling that number something as low as 18 is just crazy.

      You hit the nail on the head, Jill. What about the authors? I’d think they’d be grateful for the exposure and would rather have that, than be pulled from the virtual “shelves” because Mr. Publisher’s not getting his cut, like some kind of outraged pimp.

      Takeover? I don’t know. There’s something satisfying about a hardcover book I’ll never get from a screen. Perhaps it’s because it’s a sizable, heavy object I could throw at someone trying to hawk E-Books at me.

      Which really prompts us to ask the more important question…

      What in heck are personal injury and bankruptcy attorneys on television going to use as backgrounds behind them?!?!

  3. JPorretto

    Kind of off topic…. remember the dewie decimal system?? YOU BETTER LEARN THIS OR YOU WILL FAIL AS AN ADULT AND LIVE IN A BOX!!! Oh Libraries, you crack me up…

    IMO, publishers just need to shut up. Rentals are a huge part of media and have been forever. And they will be in various forms for a LONG time. Just be happy your materials are creating interest at all! If I had to buy every movie I wanted to see, I wouldn’t see ANY movies. My interest is infinitely expanded by rentals, to the point where I’ll BUY a sequel that I’ll know I like since I RENTED the previous edition. Sheesh. [End rant]

    • Eric

      The Dewey Decimal System is right up there with those little cards they slipped behind the cover to tell you when the book had to be returned. The only time either had much relevance to me was while I was volunteering my high school community service hours. Does anyone really use that system? Naw. Do they thumb through it enough to seriously mess it up and put it out-of-order? You betcha. You think categorizing things alphabetically is rough…that’s a completely other level of mental anguish.

  4. Rachel

    I understand book publishers are in a difficult spot, because e-books have started to completely change an industry that has adhered to the same business model for a really, really long time. But, as you and others have suggested, limiting e-book lending does not seem like an effective way to address any of the publishing industry’s problems. They should probably try to pick their fights in other avenues. 🙂

    Great post, Eric! Really got me thinking.

    • Eric

      Just was watching a TV special on Steve Jobs last night, and this comment made me think about how Jobs addressed the idea of downloading music and listening to it in that format. He assured the publishing companies of its relevancy, its safety (anti-piracy measures), and the fact people may be more likely to buy music if they can get it ala-carte, and not commit to a full album every time. Lo and behold, it worked out pretty well for both iTunes and the music industry. They’ll figure it out, eventually.

      They should pick their fights elsewhere, absolutely! I don’t see what harm could possibly come in people actually making use of their local libraries, even if they are the electronic variants. There’s a definite power and value in that notion they’re missing.

      And thanks! 🙂

  5. Jen

    Cool post Eric. This is a tough topic for a lot of people. Some people love e-books and some love physical books.

    It’s weird how there is a limit on the e-book downloads in libraries. It would be more economical to have the physical copy if they have to re-buy it every 27 check-outs. They would totally lose money, over having a physical copy that would be around much longer.

    • Eric

      Right on. If they do want to sell books, they ought to come up with a more realistic number (perhaps actually backed by some factual information) to be fair to libraries wanting to loan-out their books. Not selling them at all, well, means not selling anything. I know they’re hesitatant to do any sort of math, but I think that’s easy enough of an equation for them.

  6. Alex Brodsky

    Nice post, Eric.

    Although I choose to beat the system. I only read books on tape, and only if they’re narrated by Morgan Freeman. And none of that MP3 book on tape stuff. I don’t want to carry around a Kindle or an IPAD. Give me a good ole’ fashioned walk-man. I drop my Kindle on the train, I’m out $300 (i’m guessing). I drop my walk-man… NOTHING. Those things are sturdy beasts.

    And no 14-year old “thug” on the Chicago Blue Line is going to try and steal my walk-man. If he does, he’s in the lamest gang ever.

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