Will Kindles kill libraries?

In this corner: libraries struggling to bring in patrons. In the other: Kindles looking to expand their market. Will it be a bloodbath, or can they hug it out?
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  July 27, 2011

kindle v libraries

Public libraries have a fraught relationship with the digital book market — so fraught, in fact, that conferences like Book Expo America and the American Library Association Annual are dominated by talk of it. The debate rages on industry blogs, and librarians have launched Internet campaigns against at least one major publisher due to their approach to digital sales.

The latest marauder at the gates is Amazon. In April, the company announced that by the end of the year, Kindle users will be able to borrow books from over 11,000 local libraries through digital-content distributor OverDrive.

This week, OverDrive itself will host its own conference to help libraries deal with a massive onslaught of patrons clamoring to check out books on their Kindles. Can embattled public institutions handle such a drastic change? Does Kindle come to kill the American library, or to save it?


In the world of print, the library is king. Library sales comprise a full 10 percent of total US book sales, and publishers are happy to offer their biggest clients deep discounts to get their titles on the shelves.

Not so for e-books. Libraries get no discount on e-books at all. In fact, individual consumers pay less for e-books than libraries do. What's more, libraries often end up paying more for e-books than they do for their physical counterparts.

"You can't force a print model on digital books, and publishers are trying to do that," says Laura Irmscher, the collection development manager for the Boston Public Library. "Publishers are trying to do that — that's what they know."

Publishers divide new books, digital and otherwise, into two rough categories: bestsellers and "midlist." The latter category includes most nonfiction, genre and literary fiction, and debut novels. Midlist titles need libraries to exist.

But one-third of the major publishers don't sell digital midlist books to libraries — or any e-books at all.


Preserving materials for future generations is a big part of why libraries exist in the first place. According to the American Library Association, preservation upholds the First Amendment by contributing to the free flow of information.

But a library can't preserve a book it doesn't own. Libraries don't buy e-books — OverDrive does. Or rather, OverDrive negotiates digital licensing agreements with publishers on behalf of libraries. The library is essentially paying for access to OverDrive's stash, and it's unclear what would happen if a library stops doing business with OverDrive. Does it get to keep the e-books it paid for on its own server? Or does OverDrive pack up all its e-books and go home, leaving the library with nothing to show for whatever amount it paid?

The answer is being decided right now in Kansas. As reported in Library Journal, that state's library system began using OverDrive's services in 2006. Last year, OverDrive proposed a new contract that would raise administrative fees 700 percent by 2015.

In June, the Kansas state librarian and attorney general announced their intent to petition OverDrive for the right to terminate its contract. Kansas asserts that it owns the e-books it licensed and has the right to transfer them to a new service provider. To make sure, the state asked permission of 168 publishers. If the publishers dispute their request, Kansas will have effectively spent $568,000 for books it will no longer be able to access. That's more than they would have paid to get those books in hard copy, for keeps.

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