The lending of e-books continues to be an activity of critical interest in public libraries. As e-books gain ever wider popularity by the general public, libraries have been steadily working out the many problems related to offering e-book services similar to those offered for print materials. As e-book content increases relative to libraries' other collection components and services, libraries increasingly want more integration into their existing strategic patron interfaces and management systems rather than treating e-books as an isolated service.
The lending of e-books has primarily been offered by public libraries through subscriptions to specialized services, with Overdrive standing as the largest provider. Other providers include 3M, which entered the library e-book lending arena only recently with its 3M Cloud Library (see June 2011 issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter) and Baker and Taylor with Axis 360 introduced in 2011 with the King County Library System in Washington as its first installation.
The established model for e-book services involves a library licensing a selected set of e-books, which can then be lent to their patrons, using a process managed by the platform of the e-book provider. The library can select specific titles individually or may subscribe to bundled packages of content. In order to access the library's e-book collection, patrons search and interact with the e-book provider's branded platform instead of using the interfaces that the library provides for discovery and access to its other print and digital collection components. This process artificially separates the library's physical and digital collections and their associated fulfillment services.
The lending of e-books involves a variety of technical limitations and considerations. E-book lending platforms support specific types of reading devices. The major e-readers such as the Amazon Kindle, Apple iPad, the Nook from Barnes and Noble, and the Sony Reader tend to be widely supported, but there may be some limitations. The file format for e-books must also be considered. EPUB is an XMLbased format that has become increasingly supported, though not by the Amazon Kindle, which uses its own proprietary format. The digital rights management infrastructure also imposes requirements that complicate patron access to content, such as registration of devices and separate usernames and passwords. The prevailing concern as libraries have gained from their experiences in offering e-book lending to their patrons surrounds issues of complexity. Commercial environments make it quite simple to purchase an e-book, but borrowing one from a library so far has been a multi-step process that frustrates library patrons. Many efforts are underway to simplify process both through reduction of the steps involved on the platforms of the e-book lending providers and through integration with the library's infrastructure for patron services.
Library E-Book Lending Services
How libraries accomplish e-book lending varies. Some libraries may simply offer a link on their Web site to an external service to which they subscribe for access to e-books. Library users exit the library's Web site and connect to the e-book provider's platform to search the catalog of available e-book titles the library has licensed, and can initiate a lending transaction to transfer a title of interest to their e-book reading device. This approach to e-book discovery and lending can be seen as a complete handoff to the external service.
While that service might convey some level of branding for the subscribing library, the patron interacts completely with the e-book service's platform, not that of the library. Once on the e-book service platform, patrons are able to search only for the materials licensed from that service, not the library's complete collection of materials in other formats or even e-books acquired from other sources. Once an e-book has been checked out, the interface may lack an obvious path for the patron to return to the library's website.
Discovery of E-Books through MARC Record Sets
To achieve at least a minimal level of integration, a library can include its e-book holdings in its online catalog or discovery service. The library may load MARC records for titles licensed through its e-book service into the index of its discovery service or into its integrated library system. Then users searching the catalog will find e-book content in addition to the print materials and other items managed in the library's automation system.
These records will be configured with an 856 field that will link the user with the title on the e-book platform, where a loan can be carried out if desired. This approach does not actually bring the functionality of the e-book lending service into the library's regular online catalog. It does provide a convenient means for users to search a more comprehensive view of the library's print and electronic book titles and to link out to a title on the e-book service.
In support of the interest of libraries to search their e-book holdings from within their online catalogs, most of the e-book service providers will offer an option to deliver MARC record sets corresponding to the titles licensed. Delivery of these MARC records usually involves an additional fee.
MARC records may not be available as book titles are added to the library's collection. Given the quantity of titles accessible through these e-book collection sets, individual record-byrecord cataloging may not be feasible. The Library Corporation has recently partnered with OverDrive to provide a service to provide high-quality MARC records to libraries, with prompt delivery as the library acquires its initial collection and as it extends its collection. This service, announced in January 2012, is available to libraries subscribing to OverDrive e-book services whether or not they use one of The Library Corporation's automation products. The Library Corporation has a long history of providing bibliographic services. One of its earliest products, BiblioFile, was a very popular tool for acquiring or creating MARC records and continues today through the BiblioFile OnDemand service.
Full Integration of E-Books into the Library's Environment
The ability to search e-books from within the library's catalog or discovery service provides only a superficial layer of integration. To borrow an e-book, the patron will continue to interact with the e-book provider's platform and not the library's interfaces for patron services. A number of projects are underway to create more complete integration where patrons are able to discover and access e-book content through the same interfaces the library provides for its other collections and services. Examples include BiblioCommons work to integrate OverDrive's e-book lending into its discovery interface and Polaris' recent work to integrate the 3M Cloud Library e-book lending service into its patron facing interfaces. In this issue of SLN I will take a closer look at these two projects and explore some of the technical and business issues related to the technology of e-book lending.