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Digital public sector news, research & engagement

Should libraries charge for e-books?

ebook in libraryA proposal for libraries to charge for e-books will be considered by the government, as part of a wider review into lending.

The idea was put forward by Justin Tomlinson, a Conservative backbench MP, who warned that the future was bleak for town hall libraries without radical action. He said that 94 local authorities offered e-books, but told ministers they had little stock because the big six publishers would not release the books. That was, primarily, because the private label rights (PLR) arrangement which gives publishers and authors 6p every time a physical book is lent out does not apply to e-books.

Yet e-books were clearly the future, with sales up a staggering 366% in 2011 - while physical book sales, in the first half of last year, plunged to a ten-year low.

The MP said that it was highly unlikely that any government would ever "write a very large cheque" to release these e-books. That left only one option - a small charge, with the money generated ring-fenced and shared between the publishers, authors and libraries.

Mr Tomlinson also proposed that e-books should only be lent through "a physical visit to the library, thus protecting footfall". He admitted: "That seems like madness in a digital world, but my fear is that, if we make things too easy, why would anybody buy an e-book or visit a library?

"Local authorities across the country would soon start cutting huge swathes of community libraries, which are very important, particularly for people getting their first opportunity to enjoy reading, such as younger people, and those who cannot afford e-readers."

The MP also urged the government to set up a uniform e-book service, warning that some town halls were currently "investing heavily in a 'Betamax' option". He added: "If we do nothing, and do not convince the publishers to release their stock, library usage will continue to fall as people drift to e-readers and e-book provision in libraries remains insufficient.

"Local authorities will continue to invest in the wrong forms of technology, and we will miss out on the potential of e-books to attract new generations of readers."

The suggestion comes as the culture minister, Ed Vaizey, prepares to announce an independent review into e-book lending. Mr Vaizey has already expressed his frustration with publishers' refusal to allow e-books to be lent in libraries, holding discussions on at least two occasions.

In reply to Mr Tomlinson, David Heath, the Commons' deputy leader, referring to the review, said: "What the honourable gentleman had to say ought to feed into that process."

Photo: © iStockphoto / SashaFoxWalters