Why are EBook Libraries So Difficult?

At my current place of work, we have a library of physical books. It’s a good library with topics from programming to business analysis, project management and testing.

When someone wants to borrow a book, it works as you expect. They check it out, they read it, and they return it, checking it back in. If someone wants to borrow it in the intervening time, they reserve it.

It’s a library.

One of the many requests we get it “Can we set up a library of EBooks.” So we looked into it, and very quickly realised that “No, Sorry, we can’t”.

Sorry? What?

In this advanced digital age, in the seeming omnipresence of digital media, there is still not in existence any reproducible licencing model that a corporate organisation can adopt to form their own digital library of books.

I’ve got a theory of why this might be. Take two other forms of digital media, music and films. Our digital experience with these are identical to their non-digital counterpart. It simply doesn’t matter if the movie is being served up via a video decoding and streaming algorithm or a cellulose-acetate spool feeder. If the quality is comparable, the outcome is the same.

One could argue that the advent of digital has made our consumption of music and films easer. Rather than carry around fifty CDs, we can now store and access all the tracks on something the size of a finger, and because these devices have no moving parts, their battery consumption is less. As a result, the music and film industries have been forced (often very much against their will) to innovate and embrace the digital.

Books, however are different, They are tactile, evocative and solid. We can have a relationship with a physical book. Books interact with our senses of touch, vision and sometimes even smell. Reference books don’t transfer well to digital media, as it’s often easier to flick backwards and forwards in a physical copy of a book rather than its electronic counterpart. In short, many people will attest to the fact that digital ebook simply can’t properly replace a solid tome.

Possibly as a result, the book industry has been slower to innovate for the digital era. But, because they don’t have to innovate, it means, somewhat counter-intuitively, that they can afford to, as opposed to other media industries that couldn’t afford not to.

So let’s return to our thoughts of libraries.

One of the key roles that a book plays in society is its position in a library, whether a personal, public, educational or corporate. So, let’s look at these in turn.

Maintaining a personal library is not a problem. You buy the books you want and store it on your ebook reader. Easy. Done!

Public libraries also offer ebooks and this is set to increase. An UK government-backed report in April 2013 recommended that they do, in order to secure their existence. See Libraries to lend ebooks under new pilot scheme for more info.

Educational establishments also been known to serve up ebooks. Check out the Open University Library as an example.

But, corporate ebook repositories seem to be sticking point. You can’t legally buy a corporate Kindle and make ebooks available to your staff through that. Even if you could, it is more difficult to take them home, and means that you could only ever loan out one book at a time. Moreover, an electronic item like a Kindle is more prone to theft.

Even with free ebooks, when you read their terms and conditions, you will find that many prohibit central network storage.

I’m not an entrepreneur, but it seems blatantly obvious, even to me that there is a genuine business opportunity in the offing here.

So if anyone knows of a potential solution, post below.

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