Public librarians have applauded the increased access to e-books now being offered by the big five publishers—most recently Macmillan, which has made its entire backlist of 11,000 titles available for lending. But the recent good news, librarians say, should not obscure the fact that the present system, with its plethora of licensing models and platforms, remains untenable.

At What Price?

How are librarians feeling about e-books overall? I decided to ask. What I found was mild optimism and lingering concern.

“There are too many barriers to the easy and quick delivery of e-books,” said Jeff Tate, digital librarian at Topeka and Shawnee County (Kans.) Public Library. “If customers had to go through the same process to get a physical book, libraries would lose customers in droves.” Tate said that while the recent progress with the big five publishers has been positive, other issues prevail: prices are too high; options for simultaneous usage need to be made available (such as Gale’s recent offering for its virtual reference library); and more libraries need to experiment with their own e-book platforms—and those platforms need to include books from the majors, not just from independent publishers.

Kirk Blankenship, electronic resources librarian at the Seattle Public Library, echoed those sentiments. “2013 saw more big publishers willing to ‘test’ the library market, which is encouraging,” Blankenship said. “Unfortunately, the costs are unsustainable. Licensing models with three-times-retail pricing, or annual licenses, have greatly diminished our buying power and ability to meet demand. That needs to change.”

Cindy Beno, the collection development manager at the Austin [Tex.] Public Library, was also encouraged to see Hachette, Macmillan, and Penguin return to the library e-book lending fold over the past year. In Austin, both the circulation of digital resources and the number of first-time users are growing rapidly. In less than two years, the library’s “virtual branch” has attained the fifth-highest circulation when measured against the library’s 21 bricks-and-mortar locations. But Beno said the delay in availability of some titles due to publisher windowing continues to frustrate users. “As a collection development librarian, I can’t wait for the day when all versions, print and electronic, of a bestseller like Doctor Sleep are available for checkout on the release date,” she said.

High prices are also hurting libraries’ ability to meet growing demand. At Cuyahoga County Public Library in Ohio, for example, the library bought 338 e-book copies of Dan Brown’s The Inferno for $28,730—that’s $85 a copy.

Such prices both crimp budgets and impede availability. For every two holds, Cuyahoga buys a new copy of a print book, but because e-books cost libraries much more, the ratio rises to 5:1.

“Our customers can really be waiting extensive periods of time to have access [to e-book titles],” said Sari Feldman, the library’s director, during an ALA webinar in October.

In Austin, the library bought 51 e-book copies of the bestselling Allegiant by Veronica Roth—they are all checked out and there were 168 patrons on the holds list as of November 3.

Keeping Up

Among the bigger challenges for libraries is keeping up with all the models and services. Scarlett Fisher-Herreman, the technical services and collection development supervisor at Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, praised improvements made by vendors like OverDrive over the past year. But she said e-book selection tools still lag behind print vendors. “It’s frustrating, and my staff spends too much time just working through basic navigation and finding tools at the vendor Web site,” she said.

Austin’s Beno voiced similar concerns. “The e-book world is changing so rapidly—in terms of content, vendors, and delivery systems—the challenge for staff is to find the time to keep up with the changes,” said Beno. “It can be difficult just to read and digest e-mail about what’s new with OverDrive,” she continued, adding that frontline library staff members still have many other, more traditional responsibilities.

“I wish I could say that all frontline staff are great at technology and able to teach and assist members with all the library’s digital resources, but that just isn’t the case,” said Phil Spirito, head of adult services at Indian Trails Library District in Wheeling, Ill. “Even with the importance of technology and the popularity of digital resources, most public libraries have staff that have not adapted to the changes.”

That represents a challenge for library management, he said, especially as mobile technology reaches a tipping point, and patrons’ digital expectations expand beyond e-books. Indian Trails, for example, already has downloadable music, audiobooks, three movie resources, and digital magazines, in addition to three e-book resources. Soon, it will add digital comic books.

“I feel that it is each librarian’s responsibility to stay current and keep building [digital] proficiency. Once you fall behind or are behind it can be very difficult to catch up,” Spirito said.

“The reality is that we work with people each day who are still onboarding with e-readers, tablets, and the whole digital world,” said Fisher-Herreman. “We especially work with the people who need extra assistance to make a successful transition to digital products, and there is still so much to explain, check, recheck, and troubleshoot to make that experience successful for them.”

At Seattle Public Library, library staff has access to a variety of devices and training sessions with vendors, and there are guides for patrons, said Kreg Hasegawa, a librarian there. Still, DRM schemes for many e-books make the process too complicated for patrons, and thus result in heavy staff troubleshooting, he said—and increased frustration: glitches within files, OPAC interactions, upgrade issues, lack of detailed APIs, and the reliance of devices on particular formats all are vexing problems that have changed the book-borrowing experience profoundly, Hasegawa said.

“Before, you could take a physical book off the shelf and simply open it to read it,” he pointed out. “Now, in order to take the same book off the ‘shelf,’ there are over a half-dozen specific ways you must open it. That is a significant difference,” Hasegawa noted.

Bigger Picture

Librarians interviewed for this article did not see a significant threat, if any, from recently introduced services such as Oyster and Scribd, which offer unlimited streaming of e-books for $9.95 and $8.99 a month, respectively. Patrons still want free services, most librarians said, and these new services also will likely run into similar licensing issues as libraries have.

But Gary Price, the founder of InfoDocket, said that mindset may be shortsighted—if there is one clear takeaway from recent developments, it is that the library market is changing rapidly, as is user behavior.

“I used to use my local public library to not only get books, but also spend days researching whatever I was interested in, and accessing LPs, cassettes, CDs, as well as VHS and DVDs,” Price said. “Now with Rhapsody, Spotify, Netflix, Amazon, and others—I love Shazam for music discovery, and it’s free—I no longer need the library for this content. I think something similar will be the case in the next three to seven years, if not sooner, when it comes to books and e-books.”

After months of dialogue, the recent increase in e-book access has been a positive step. But Fisher-Herreman believes a new, more comprehensive dialogue is now needed in the library community about e-books and the patron’s experience in the digital world.

“I’ve sat through too many well-intentioned presentations and webinars where we librarians essentially say the same thing over and over about what we want with e-books, our frustrations,” she said, “but we haven’t yet taken a big step together to the next place.”