So far we’ve been talking a lot about how much local authorities are prepared to fund public library services. This looks like the defining issue of the moment. After all, with libraries open for shorter hours in Hertfordshire, and with branches closing all around the country, isn’t this the most urgent issue we face?
It is. However, there is another issue on the horizon that is likely to provide a problem for public library services that is potentially every bit as threatening. And we need to start gearing up to see this one off too.
It is this. More and more people are choosing to read books electronically. While public libraries can stock and lend ebooks perfectly well (as Hertfordshire already does) they have practically no negotiating power with publishers who will soon be in a position to dictate terms, if they are not already.
The problem is that, legally speaking, a physical bound book and an ebook are entirely different entities. When we buy or borrow a physical volume we mostly have a pretty good idea what we own and what we can do with it. We can, for example, lend it to a friend or sell it on when we don’t need it. We can give it away or even donate it to a library to become part of its lending stock.
When we buy or borrow an ebook none of that is true – we are operating in an arena that is more analagous to buying computer games or other software. Buy an ebook and you buy a licence to use an electronic artefact which isn’t transferable to others. The concept of ‘lending’ does not operate in licensing law.
Clearly this lack of clarity on lending electronic materials represents a significant threat to the future of the lending library and, as a result, to the dissemination of knowledge, ideas and culture around the whole of Europe. If ebooks become established as the dominant form of reading material, can libraries survive? EBLIDA, which is a European association for librarians and information professionals, thinks possibly not and is now lobbying on the subject.
It believes that this complex and potentially divisive issue can only be tackled effectively at a European level. Its president Gerald Leitner recently attended a library conference here in the UK and explained that many such matters are tackled by means of a directive from the European Commission. But no such directive is in the pipeline.
Mr Leitner recommends that we lobby MEPs and ask them to support a white paper setting out a unified European library policy, something he believes has the potential to address both the future basis for the public lending of library materials and the politican and financial issues that he described as the dismantling of the social achievements of an entire continent, a move that should provoke outrage among its citizens.