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Smarter Libraries through Technology: The State of Digital Lending in Public Libraries

Smart Libraries Newsletter [August 2021]

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Public libraries routinely lend digital materials, especially ebooks, audiobooks, and streaming video. For public libraries in the United States, circulation of books continues to far outpace digital lending. According to the most recent data set from the IMLS, US public libraries in aggregate circulated 2.2 billion print items and a total 348 million digital loans. Although no definitive statistics have been published, the proportion of digital lending to traditional circulation was substantially higher during the COVID-19 pandemic when most public libraries closed access to their buildings.

The concept of the electronic book is not new. Over fifty years ago, Michael S. Hart began to convert and provide access to books and other printed texts through Project Gutenberg. This collection of public domain texts has grown to over 60,000 free ebooks, presented in multiple formats including HTML, EPUB, and Kindle. (Source:

Public libraries face challenges in digital lending. The reading interests of their communities cannot be met through free public domain titles alone, but require access to current titles that are under copyright and are almost always acquired through commercial publishers. Library lending of print books falls under the first sale doctrine in U.S copyright law, enabling unrestricted use, including the ability to sell, give away, or lend.

This doctrine does not apply to electronic copies of books, which involve a complex set of business issues and technology components. The practice of Controlled Digital Lending aims to confer practices for print materials on digitized books owned by a library, though this concept is challenged by publishers who entered a lawsuit against the Internet Archive in June 2020.

Apart from Controlled Digital Lending, the ability for libraries to lend commercial ebooks depends on licenses that specify pricing and lending terms allowed by the publisher. There has been constant tension between the major publishers and public library lending services. While almost all publishers today offer their ebooks to libraries for lending, the pricing and terms continue to present challenges. Publishers see the need to constrain library lending to protect their digital sales. While the libraries continue to press for more favorable terms, the almost universal participation of publishers in library ebook lending services represents important progress relative to the early years of these services.

Publisher terms for ebooks specify provisions in library lending policy and the duration of the license. Some licenses may allow one simultaneous loan for a title for each subscribed copy for a fixed period. Other options may allow multiple simultaneous loans, but with a cap on the total number of loans allowed. Once the license period expires or when the item reaches its loan limit, the library would need to repurchase the license to continue access. Publishers compare these limits to physical books that wear out in the course of library lending and need to be replaced.

Commercial publishers generally do not offer libraries an option to purchase ebooks permanently. Douglas County Libraries in Colorado led an initiative, beginning in 2012, where libraries purchased ebooks from publishers and provided controlled access through their own digital platforms, using Adobe Content Server for digital rights management. While some smaller publishers initially endorsed this model, it failed to gain acceptance among the broader publishing industry and the initiative fell away in about 2014. (see “Technology to Empower Library Control of E-book Lending” Smart Libraries Newsletter, August 2013). Transaction-based and term-limited licenses have become the established business model for library lending.

Libraries are able to get more flexible terms for digital content from sources other than the largest commercial publishers. Califa Group, a nonprofit membership consortium, for example, created the Enki Library, which includes persistent digital content. This collection includes self-published titles, public domain ebooks, graphic novels, and other materials from some smaller publishers. (See /enkilibrary). BiblioLabs, through its BiblioBoard platform, likewise offers tools and content selections available to libraries with perpetual, multiuser access. (BiblioLabs was recently acquired by LYRASIS.)

Despite these challenges, almost all public libraries in the United States offer some level of ebook lending. Libraries subscribe to ebook lending services directly or through consortia. The offerings of individual libraries may be supplemented by regional or statewide programs.

Public libraries make substantial investments in ebooks and other digital content. According to aggregated statistics reported to IMLS, public libraries in the United States spent $449,240,581 on electronic content and $761,564,869 on print in 2019. Expenditures on digital resources have grown steadily in the past decade, while print spending has plateaued.

Public libraries depend primarily on commercial providers for their digital lending services. OverDrive launched its library ebook lending service in 2003 and has continually advanced the capabilities of its platform. Other competitors include cloudLibrary, originally developed by 3M Library Systems and now part of bibliotheca; the Axis 360 service from Baker & Taylor; and ODILO. Hoopla offers audiobook, music, and other streaming digital content. Kanopy specializes in streaming video, filling an important need as libraries move away from lending DVDs. While OverDrive ranks as the dominant provider of digital content services to libraries, it faces substantial competition in the United States and globally. OverDrive recently acquired Kanopy, expanding its offerings of streaming video content.

The ebook lending services have continually made improvements in their capabilities and usability. Today, library patrons can easily check out, download, and read an ebook with a few quick steps. In the early years of library ebook lending, the process required of patrons borrowing their first ebook was notoriously complex, involving downloading software and setting up multiple accounts with passwords. Library advocacy initiatives exerting pressure on publishers and digital lending providers led to this streamlining.


This concern with the complexity of the commercial ebook lending products led to the formation of the ReadersFirst initiative (, which grew from discussions within New York Public Library in 2011 into a broad-based coalition of public libraries. It remains active, with over 300 participants. Fragmented technologies with little interoperability among ebook lending services and ILS vendors led to the complexity of borrowing ebooks from the library. The Readers First principles were issued in June 2012 and have been broadly endorsed by the public library community. In brief, these principles state:

  • Search and browse a single comprehensive catalog with all of a library's offerings at once…
  • Place holds, check-out items, view availability, manage fines and receive communications within individual library…
  • Seamlessly enjoy a variety of e-content…
  • Download e-books that are compatible with all readers…

(See for complete statements.)

The ReadersFirst Working Group performed a detailed assessment of the interoperability capabilities of libraryoriented ebook distributors and in January 2014 published its findings in the “ReadersFirst Guide to Library E-Book Vendors” ( First-Guide-Library-E-Book-Vendors.pdf). In this assessment, OverDrive (85) earned the highest compliance score, followed closely by cloudLibrary (80), and Axis 360 (80). The vendor matrix included in the Guide shows the substantial progress that the major ebook providers made in connecting their platforms with library ILS and discovery products.

principal terms of the Exchange Offers
ReadersFirst Vendor Matrix

The ReadersFirst initiative led to important progress. Integration of digital lending services with the library's local ILS, including seamless authentication for patrons has become routine. Modern easy-to-use apps to search, select, and download ebooks and audiobooks are available from the commercial lending providers and from library-based services.

Major changes have transpired in the nonprofit library lending arena in recent months.. This issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter will cover the ongoing evolution of the Library Simplified and SimplyE initiative driven by the New York Public Library along with the recent launch of the Palace Project by LYRASIS, including its acquisition of BiblioLabs. In the September issue we will cover OverDrive's acquisition of Kanopy and report in detail on LYRASIS's acquisition of BiblioLabs.

View Citation
Publication Year:2021
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 41 Number 08
Issue:August 2021
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
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Record Number:26573
Last Update:2023-01-24 21:08:16
Date Created:2021-08-11 15:43:53