Open Library, a group of more than 150 libraries led by the Internet Archive, has announced its latest plan to lend browser-based digital editions of e-books, beginning with a new, cooperative 80,000+ eBook lending collection of mostly 20th century books. Calling the plan a “new twist on the traditional lending model,” Open Library officials say the program could help increase "e-book use and revenue" for publishers.

Under the program, any account holder can borrow up to five e-books at a time, for up to two weeks, under a one-book, one reader model. Patrons can choose to view the e-book in a browser version, via the Internet Archive’s BookReader web application, or in PDF or ePub versions, managed by the Adobe Digital Editions software, making the user experience not unlike that of the format agnostic Google eBookstore. Internet Archive founder and “digital librarian” Brewster Kahle says the program is intended to keep traditional libraries in the game as reader preferences turn to digital editions. “As readers go digital, so are our libraries,” Kahle says. Most of the books in the program are library-owned editions scanned by the Internet Archive. The Internet Archive’s Open Library initiative has already scanned and made available over a million primarily backlist books available for lending.

E-books have become a thorny issue for libraries with the advent of successful consumer e-book models, like Kindle, Nook, and Google eBooks. Traditionally, libraries buy books and other products, own them, and lend them, spending billions annually. But with most popular, frontlist e-book titles, libraries no longer buy the books, but license them, and currently, there is no institutional sales model for library e-books on the major platforms. This has left libraries with no choice but to use third-party vendors, like OverDrive, to supply e-book titles to patrons, with some publishers still refusing to allow library lending of popular titles

At ALA Midwinter, librarians spoke of surging digital demand, and more library budget money being allocated to meet that demand. At the recent Digital Book World in Janaury, NYPL librarian Christopher Platt noted that patron disappointment that some publishers, and big titles are not in the library e-book mix, such as Keith Richards‘ recent biography Life, and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. “You try explaining why to a patron,” Platt said. “All the patron knows is that the library failed them.”

The latest Open Library initiative will make backlist books available for now, though there are Open Library titles that are still in copyright. In June, 2010, Kahle’s Open Library scanning efforts with Boston Public Library drew questions about whether they would be sued for its practice of scanning and lending digital editions of in-copyright books. But Kahle told librarians at the recent ALA Midwinter Meeting in San Diego that after some initial hand-wringing, there has been “nary a peep” from publishers. He said that was because content owners recognize that his ventures are open, non-profit, and culturally important. “We’re just doing what libraries do.”

While the latest Open Library venture is a modest attempt to impact the e-book market for libraries, Kahle has been vocal about the broader implications for libraries. Moving from a system where libraries buy books and curate collections for the public to a system where libraries simply serve as access points when permitted by rightsholders, Kahle has argued, is a major shift in the way libraries work, with significant cultural implications. At ALA, Kahle passionately urged libraries to recognize that shift, and to take action to preserve their traditional roles. “What libraries do is buy stuff, and lend it out,” he said. He suggested libraries “digitize what we have to, and buy what we can,” but not to let the promise of licensed access turn libraries into agents for a few major corporations. “We do so at our peril.”