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An Open Source Option for Public Library E-book Lending

Smart Libraries Newsletter [June 2019]


A collaboration between DPLA, NYPL, and LYRASIS is working to develop a new alternative for public library e-book lending. 1 This infrastructure includes an open source repository, a mobile e-book reader, and a marketplace for libraries to purchase titles for lending. In the context where e-book lending for public libraries is dominated by commercial platforms, this new alternative represents a community-based alternative that is based on open source software and a non-profit business model.

E-book Lending Technology Basics

Library e-book lending services require specialized support, including several components of technical infrastructure and business processes. These components comprise an ecosystem enabling libraries to acquire licenses to lend books from publishers, to gain access to controlled digital copies of each title, functionality to manage lending transaction to patrons, and an interface or apps used by patrons to search, access, and read materials provided for them by the library. Characterized generally as digital lending, these services can include e-books, audiobooks, streaming or downloaded video, or other types of content.

Providing access to free materials, such as those with expired copyrights or published under an open access arrangement, does not require such a complex environment. Much of the material of interest to public library patrons, however, remains within copyright, and publishers require specific control mechanisms to ensure that unrestricted copies of their digital assets not be released on the internet. Publishers use digital rights management on their own platforms or for their e-commerce distributors and likewise require similar protections in systems enabling library lending.

The business component of a library digital lending environment is comprised of a catalog of titles that are available to libraries. This catalog would be accessed by the librarians responsible for purchasing content titles for the library. It would include titles for which the provider has negotiated licenses from publishers and may also include free materials available in the public domain or other non-restricted arrangements. The provider's digital lending service would typically work with a wide range of publishers to negotiate licensing arrangements that specify the cost and lending rules applicable to each title. The catalog would usually include features that enable a library to select titles to add to their collection and to manage account and financial details.

Another component of a library e-book lending environment manages the borrowing and delivery of the titles the library has acquired for its patrons. This circulation management system includes capabilities to enforce the restrictions required by the publisher and the lending policies of the library. E-book circulation rules might include restrictions to the number of simultaneous active loans allowed at a time, the number of accumulated loans allowed per copy of a title as well as library-set policies, such as the number of days allowed for a borrowed item, whether renewals are possible, and the number of loans a patron can have at a time. This circulation control module would also manage the access of the digital copy of the item for the patron, including any technical interactions with the user's app or device needed for the digital rights management technology.

Library patrons need some type of app or interface to take advantage of its digital lending offerings. The most common method of access involves an app that the library or the provider makes available for installation on the patron's e-book reader, smartphone, tablet, or computer. Web-based apps or interfaces may also be provided for use on laptop or desktop computers.

Current library digital lending environments also include interoperability mechanisms between the library's online catalog and the digital lending platform. This interoperability enables patrons to use the library's online catalog and see results of both physical items in the library and digital versions. It also allows patrons to select and download titles for reading. In support of discovery of digital content in the library's online catalog, MARC records may be loaded into the ILS for indexing, usually through an automated batch process. A set of APIs mutually activated between the external digital lending platform and the library's ILS can streamline and simplify the patron's experience. These APIs enable check-out and download of available material or placement in a hold queue for titles not immediately available due to checkout thresholds. Patron borrowing of digital materials can usually be done without an additional logon beyond the library's online catalog. The patron account feature in the online catalog would then show both print and digital items current checked out. The integration of e-book lending services has advanced considerably since the early days of these services where the e-book lending link would simply transfer patron to the provider's platform.

The Commercial Environment

A fully commercial paradigm for library e-book lending has become well established. In the United States, for example, most public libraries offer at least some digital lending through commercial providers such as Overdrive, bibliotheca cloudLibrary, Axis 360 from Baker & Taylor, or RB Digital from Recorded Books. These vendors offer large catalogs of titles available for libraries to license for lending to their patrons through terms negotiated with publishers. Each offers a marketplace for libraries to select and pay for titles, a content delivery platform to control and lend materials to patrons, and e-book reading apps or interfaces that patrons use to discover, check-out, and read materials. These services are essentially end-to-end environments that provide valuable services to libraries but with limited flexibility.

These commercial services include their app or interface used by patrons for interacting with the digital content. Overdrive, for example, offers Libby, an e-book reading apps for Apple, Android, and Windows. Introduced in 2017, Libby offers substantial improvements in user experience over the original Overdrive app.

These commercial offerings have found broad acceptance in the public library arena. Almost all public libraries in the United States offer a digital lending service, with Overdrive currently ranking as the dominant provider. That said, libraries are not entirely satisfied with the current environment due to high costs and restrictive license terms. The commercial providers take the brunt of the frustration on e-book pricing and lending restrictions but are only passing along the licensing terms offered by the publishers. Beyond costs and lending restrictions, other areas of ongoing concern involve branding and interoperability. Libraries often express concern that the e-book lending service they support is perceived by their patrons associated with their provider and not their own brand or identity. Once the Overdrive Libby app has been installed on a library patron's device, for example, subsequent search and selections of e-books take place entirely within Overdrive's ecosystem. This scenario means that patrons may not necessarily encounter resources the library acquires from other providers or materials in its print collection or other services. While seeing great value in working with commercial e-book providers, libraries are also interested in additional arrangements that expand options and add more openness and flexibility in their digital lending services. For many public libraries, digital lending is increasing relative to loans of physical materials, making this issue an important long-term strategic concern.

A Public, Non-profit Alternative

This interest in exploring new alternatives for e-book lending services for public libraries is driving a group of initiatives that are coming together in a new digital lending environment based open source software and a non-profit content marketplace. Key players behind this initiative include DPLA, NYPL, and LYRASIS.

Addressing the need for a library-branded e-book lending service for libraries, NYPL led the development of an open source digital lending app called SimplyE. The development of SimplyE began in 2015, carried out primarily at NYPL, to create a library e-book app that was substantially easier to use than the commercial products then available. It aimed to collapse the complex process for a patron to borrow an e-book from the library down to three clicks. SimplyE prioritizes availability rather than popularity in search results, resulting in shorter wait queues and increased use of materials. NYPL launched SimplyE to its patrons in early 2016, providing access to content from the three major library e-book providers—Overdrive, bibliotheca cloudLibrary, and Baker & Taylor Axis 360.

SimplyE was developed as open source software and has been made available to the broader library community. Some libraries or consortia have implemented SimplyE, including the Califa group through a grant from the California State Library. Support services for libraries interested in deploying SimplyE are available from LYRASIS, which also provides governance and support for other open source projects including DSpace, Fedora, CollectionSpace, and ArchivesSpace. Odilo, a digital lending provider based in Spain has also integrated SimplyE with its platform.2

The Library Simplified Circulation Manager provides the technical connections and business applications required in support of a digital lending. The circulation manager can operate with the SimplyE app or others that follow the Open Distribution for Libraries protocol. It has been designed to work with multiple content distribution platforms including the DPLA Exchange, Overdrive, bibliotheca cloudLibrary, and Axis 360. This open environment enables libraries to acquire digital content resources from multiple providers and make them available to patrons through a single app. The Library Simplified Collection Manager provides comprehensive analytics spanning all the library's digital content providers.

DPLA has created a new catalog and marketplace of digital titles available to libraries called the DPLA Exchange.3 DPLA has engaged with publishers to gain access to titles under similar terms as have been offered to the commercial library digital lending providers. The DPLA Exchange provides an interface where libraries can select and pay for titles of interest as well as browse and select titles from a large collection of open content. While the DPLA Exchange offers an expanding catalog of content, it is currently used mostly to supplement rather than replace the digital materials acquired from other providers. Although the licenses initially offered resemble those made available through the commercial providers, more attractive terms may be possible in the future.

Each library or consortium implementing this environment will need its own instance of the Library Simplified Circulation Manager. Library organizations can deploy this open source software directly, or they can contract with LYRASIS for hosting services.

Pilot Project

This initiative for an open digital lending environment was introduced in October 2017 as a pilot project. Libraries participating in the pilot phase included the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the Alameda County Library in California, Connecticut State Library, the Califa Library Group including members in California and Kansas, the Saint Mary's County Library in Maryland, and the Yavapai Library Network in Arizona.

Toward a National Digital Lending Platform for Libraries

Following successful testing in the pilot phase, the initiative announced in April 2019 its ambitious agenda to develop a national digital lending platform for libraries. The initiative continues the collaboration of DPLA, NYPL, and LYRASIS and will be available to all public libraries in the United States. The SimplyE Community Leadership Advisory Council has been established to provide insight, guidance, and oversight as the project develops.

This initiative represents an important step in the advancement of digital lending in public libraries. While the lending of physical materials will persist in public libraries indefinitely, digital services will continue to grow and become increasingly important.


  1. Digital Public Library of America, “New Collaborative Effort to Develop a National Digital Ebooks Platform for Libraries Announced,” news release, April 18, 2019,
  2. Odilo, “Odilo se Incorpora a Library Simplified de la Biblioteca Pública de Nueva York,” news release, January 30, 2018,
  3. For more information, see “Homepage,” Digital Public Library of America Exchange, accessed May 10, 2019,
View Citation
Publication Year:2019
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 39 Number 06
Issue:June 2019
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
Company: Lyrasis
Products: SimplyE
Record Number:24469
Last Update:2023-12-08 11:45:43
Date Created:2019-07-26 07:42:00