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Libraries and Ebooks: An Australian Perspective


This is the first post by our new blogger, Kate McKenzie, based on research she’s done for her Masters in Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne. While there are differences between Australian and North American library systems and ebook policies, we’re excited to welcome Kate’s account of things in her hometown to help widen our picture of the way people are borrowing and reading around the world.


Random House, one of the world’s biggest publishing houses, recently said that libraries do, in fact, ‘own’ their Random House ebooks. Some news outlets celebrated the statement, while others are more skeptical. What really needs to be asked is, can you really own an ebook at all? Michael Kelley, from Library Journal, spoke to Random House’s vice president of library and academic marketing and sales, Skip Dye, who said:

“We spend a lot of time discussing this with librarians, at conferences and elsewhere, and it’s clear that there is still some confusion out there around whether libraries own their ebooks. Random House’s often repeated, and always consistent position is this: when libraries buy their RH, Inc. ebooks from authorized library wholesalers, it is our position that they own them.”

Dye went on to make clear the distinction with licensing:

“This is our business model: we sell copies of our ebooks to an approved list of library wholesalers, and those wholesalers are supposed to resell them to libraries. In our view, this purchase constitutes ownership of the book by the library. It is not a license.”

However, there have been a few notable (and well-reported) cases of the owners of ebooks turning out to be, well, not really the owners. A Norwegian Amazon customer alleged that her entire Kindle library had been wiped. And it was revealed that Barnes & Noble can stop already-purchased ebooks from being downloaded by customers if the credit card they used to pay has since expired. In 2009, Amazon made George Orwell’s novel, 1984, disappear from Kindles across the world when they realized their version of the ebook had been sold without a license. These and other incidents have helped us understand that there are varying degrees of owning ebooks. You can own the rights; you can have access to the ebook indefinitely; you can have permission to sell copies of the ebook; and you can have permission to “loan” the ebook for certain periods of time.

None of these circumstances really allow you to “own” an ebook in the same way you would be able to own a physical book, though. Library patrons can’t browse the shelves for the books they need. They can’t sit in the library with several books open at once, and the library can’t accept donations of used ebooks from patrons. From a budget point of view, the library can’t sell second-hand ebooks. More importantly, ebooks can’t incur an overdue fine, because they delete themselves on the due date. Many local library relies on patrons paying their overdue fines in order to buy new books.

On the other hand, patrons can borrow ebooks outside of library hours. They can keep all their ebooks on one portable device, and they can’t lose library ebooks.

Earlier this year, I had a look at libraries in Melbourne, the Australian city where I live, to see where they are heading in the future. The results were surprisingly positive, but the future does depend on libraries and publishers cooperating.

My local library had 10,800 new members sign up last year, bringing its total to 106,659 members. That is 40% of the population in the area, who combined took out 3.1 million loans. The patrons clearly value the library–they attend author events, subscribe to the library newsletter, and follow the library on social media.

However, my local library and its providing publishers have not agreed on satisfactory contract options when it comes to ebooks. The few contract options are expensive, and lock the library in for years–not a very viable option in this quickly changing industry. Unfortunately, this means people in my  area still don’t have access to ebooks through the library.

Other public libraries in the Melbourne area have links to ebooks from Project Gutenberg on their catalogue. The libraries are looking at bringing in more ebooks in this year when a contract is signed with the American third party OverDrive, and they also have partnerships with Wavesound and Bolinda for downloadable e-audio books.

Andrew Finegan is an information librarian and blogger. He agrees that publishers are struggling to understand ebooks. When libraries pay for ebooks, they are buying a subscription rather than a physical object. You can’t apply the same rules to ebooks, he says, as “it creates a model where the ebook has no advantage over the physical book, where you can only have one book at a time.” Finegan thinks libraries “should work directly with publishers rather than using OverDrive”, because “there’s no quality control over the format.”

“Libraries will always exist as a way to make sense of information”, he says. “You need to have an environment, that [can] guide you through the search process”, as well as have a place to “celebrate reading as recreation.”

Clearly, the technological as well as financial steps to procuring ebooks are complicated, and sometimes simply not feasible for libraries in Australia, the US, or other countries. Relying on multiple types of platforms and media to make ebooks available leaves room for confusion, as well as the problem of some ereaders not being able to house multiple formats of digital files. A uniform format delivery system, as well as reduced subscription prices, are necessities when it comes to delivering technological files to the masses.

When we look to the microcosm of library development that is my local library, it’s clear that there is still interest and growth in communities when it comes to reading. In order to facilitate that love of reading in changing technological times, publishers and libraries must work together in order to make as many titles available to community members–while also arriving at a financial option that is feasible, as well as profitable, for all involved.


  1. Deb Gordon says:

    Thought provoking, look forward to more articles relating to home town Melbourne and literature in its many forms.

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