Tag Archives: eBooks

Library Stat of the Week #14: Four out of five loans at the median national library are in electronic format

In the last two library stats of the week, we have looked at the relationship between digital and physical loans from public and academic libraries.

Based on countries for which data is available, it is clear that there is a big difference in use of eBooks and other electronic formats. In public libraries, loans of electronic books and documents represents less than 14% of all loans, while in academic libraries, the figure is more than 94%.

What about national libraries?

Often the biggest library in the country, they hold very significant collections, thanks both to legal deposit (where this is in place) and proactive collection policies. As such, they are a critical resource for researchers, educators, and all others simply with an interest in culture and history. Some are even explicitly combined with public or university library functions.

The resources they hold can be subject to particular rules, especially legal deposit copies of works. In some countries, for example, it may be possible to send physical copies of works but not digital ones. In others, there is digital access, but only in specific places.

Clearly, at a time of COVID-19, where digital tools provide the only means of accessing content, there is a need for laws and practices that allow this. In general, of course, more digital access to national library collections contributes to their mission to facilitate research, education and access to culture, without people having to travel.

So what was the situation before the crisis? IFLA’s Library Map of the World offers insights into this, with almost forty countries sharing data on how many books, eBooks, documents and downloads they offer.

Overall, it is clear that many national libraries have already seized the possibilities that digital is offering. Across countries for which data is available, the median share of digital loans and downloads in total loans was just under 80% – this was the case in Malaysia.

This means that almost four times as many books and documents were being shared electronically than physically. In 13 of the 38 countries, national libraries were sharing over ten times as many works in digital form than in physical. Nonetheless, in fifteen the share of digital books and documents in the total was less than 50%.

To some extent, as set out above, differences between national libraries may be down to the rules they face and the nature of their collections. What is certain is that in current circumstances, there is a real value in finding ways to facilitate access to the works that they hold.


Find out more on the Library Map of the World, where you can download key library data in order to carry out your own analysis! See our other Library Stats of the Week! We are happy to share the data that supported this analysis on request.

Library Stat of the Week #13: Globally, 94.6% of documents borrowed from academic libraries are digital

In last week’s Library Stat of the Week, we looked at eLending in public and community libraries, both in terms of loans per user, and the relationship with physical lending.

This underlined that while eLending continued to represent only a relatively small share of total lending – arguably due in part to the conditions under which libraries can do it – this already represented up to 15% of total loans in some countries.

This week, we’re looking at academic libraries. Here, use of electronic materials has been common for much longer.

The internet has opened up exciting possibilities to promote access to research from around the world, and opened the door to a world where it is not only those affiliated to the largest institutions who can draw on comprehensive collections of literature.

Of course, this is not yet the case, due to the slow spread of Open Access, and of course the fact that barely half of the world’s population can access the internet.

A particular concern at the moment – at the time of the COVID-19 Pandemic – is when access is limited to people in the library or on campus according to the terms of contracts. Many of the eBooks borrowed, or documents downloaded, by students and researchers from academic libraries will be subject to such restrictions.

Without action, education and innovation risks serious disruption. With action, we will see the potential of the internet realised – and of course a stronger case still for investing in universal connectivity.

So how extensive is the use of electronic documents in academic libraries? Figures reported on IFLA’s Library Map of the World for eBook loans and document downloads offer an idea.

Across the 55 countries and territories reporting such data, there were almost 12 billion such loans or downloads in the year of reporting. Across the 49 for which both these numbers, and numbers of registered users are available, that makes for over 137 loans or downloads per user per year.

In 51 countries and territories, we can also compare eBook loans and downloads with physical book and document loans. As a share of total loans and downloads, electronic ones account for 94.6% of the total!

Looking across world regions, the highest shares of electronic loans and downloads are in Latin America and the Caribbean (96.4%) and Asia (96.2%), while the European Union and Middle East and North Africa are both well over 80%.

The lowest shares – on incomplete data – are in Africa (47.2%) and non-EU Europe (43.5%). In Micronesia – the only country in Oceania with all relevant data, the figure is only 6.2%.

The data highlights the need for a dual approach for academic libraries in future – both ensuring that those which are already heavily reliant on digital materials are able to use them fully, and working to help those still primarily using physical ones to access all that digital tools have to offer.


Find out more on the Library Map of the World, where you can download key library data in order to carry out your own analysis! See our other Library Stats of the Week! We are happy to share the data that supported this analysis on request.

Buy, Borrow or Both? What the Boersenverein’s Survey of eLending Does and Doesn’t Tell Us

Last year, the German book industry organisation – the Boersenverein – published research commissioned from GfK on library eLending, including comparative analysis between physical and eBook buyers and borrowers as regards their age, situation, and habits.

This has been promoted by the Boersenverein as evidence that library eLending harms publishing, and that there is no need to expand the offer of eBooks in libraries. It has started to be used internationally as well as a counter-argument to library efforts to improve eLending terms and offers.

But is this really what the evidence presented says? This blog looks at the data, both from the fuller German and shorter English editions.


Who Borrows?

The study aims to provide extensive figures about the people who borrow physical books and eBooks, providing a breakdown between people who only borrow one type, and those who borrow both.

This finds that less than 10% of library users only borrow eBooks – an estimated 900 000 according to the analysis. Three quarters only borrow physical books and the rest – around 1.2 million – combine.

Library use for borrowing physical books is most common among people with higher incomes, and with more education (although a higher share of people with only a high-school education use libraries than those with a university education).

There is a similar story for eBooks (although obviously we are talking about small numbers), except in that use of eLending is highest among the richest and the poorest income groups, with only those in the middle borrowing less.

Finally, the study looks in particular at age groups, finding that borrowers both of physical and eBooks tend to be younger than buyers. 29% of physical book borrowers and 27% of eBook borrowers are under 30, while the figures for buyers are 20% in both categories. The trend is reversed for the over-60s.

The analysis leaps to the conclusion that that library users can pay for books, and implies that they shouldn’t be borrowing. Yet this does not hold water. There has been extensive research into the role of library lending in helping people discover new books, and indeed trying a book out before they choose to buy, while the results of the analysis imply that younger borrowers turn into older buyers.

Put simply, the only thing that the survey really shows is that book buying and borrowing go together – something that has been known for a long time.


Borrow or Buy?

The research then looks into the behaviour of physical and eBook borrowers in Germany. The headline identified by the Boersenverein is the suggestion that 43% of users of library eLending have reduced or stopped altogether their buying of eBooks since they could start borrowing.

This would be a strong argument, except for the fact that in the following question – what would users of the library eLending offer do if this were to disappear, a full 48% would either buy fewer eBooks, or buy none at all. The analysis does not break down between the share of people who would completely stop buying, and those who had never bought.

These results are certainly confusing, but what they don’t represent is an argument for trying to restrict or harm library eLending. Indeed, it seems that restricting or preventing library eLending would also have a net negative effect on sales of other media.

The study also looks at levels of contentment with the offer of eBooks for lending, and the timeliness of their availability. It finds that 75% of users are happy with the variety on offer and 68% with the speed at which they are available. This is arguably a testimony to the efforts of libraries to provide books – often at very high prices or on restrictive terms. It does not explore whether a wider range of books, available more quickly, could help attract more people into reading.

Finally, the analysis uses the answers to direct questions to suggest that people who borrow books in general, if given a choice, will borrow rather than buying. It also suggests that borrowers in general do not feel like they are in a situation where they can’t afford to buy. Clearly, the questions are leading – will people openly admit to being too poor to buy? What would they have said if they believed that authors should be paid?. Moreover, this doesn’t fit with the evidence that borrowers are in fact more likely to buy books than the rest of the population.



Overall, the study is relatively transparent in its objectives from the beginning, and so already needs to be taken with some scepticism. There are also oddities – the whole study assumes that over 10 million people are borrowing from libraries, but German Library Association figures show that only 7.35 million have library cards.

It makes a lot of noise about one or two results, while ignoring others, and makes some big – and unfounded – assumptions that have rightly been challenged by the German Library Association (DBV) in its own response.

It gives no attention to the question of the costs to libraries of acquiring and lending eBooks, although it is to be hoped that there would be consensus that freeing up libraries to expand collections and offer services is desirable.

Fundamentally, the parallels between book buying and book borrowing tendencies across income groups and levels of education – and the fact that book borrowers are also more enthusiastic buyers – only seems to underline that libraries and bookshops can work in synergy.

However, as the DBV points out, this only brings out an uncomfortable truth – one that the study overlooks – that reading (either though buying or borrowing) is less common among those with low incomes and low education.

The real conclusion, perhaps, is the need to do more to reach out to groups who may need support with literacy. Indeed, with 6.2 million adults in Germany struggling to understand texts, there is a real need to focus on whatever works in helping build reading skills, something that a properly supported library system, freed from unnecessary restrictions, is well placed to help with.

Out of Hand? Libraries, eBook ownership and Lending

Libraries, eBook ownership and Lending

The rise of eBooks has led to some significant changes in the world of publishing. While they are clearly a long way from replacing their physical equivalents, eBooks do now enjoy a significant share of the market, and have allowed a lot of independent and self-published authors to emerge.

They have also brought questions about what it means to ‘own’ something to the world of books and reading.

Because while buying a physical book represented a pretty definitive transfer of ownership – the buyer could then read, scribble in the margins, share with a friend, give it away or resell it – it’s different with eBooks.

Libraries are of course also affected by this restriction on ownership. Not only are they not always allowed to buy eBooks (not a challenge when a library would stock up at a local bookshop or other vendor), but then their ability to lend books, and on what terms is different.


From Anecdote to Hard Evidence

This situation has led to a lot of frustration, but until recently, only limited and anecdotal evidence of what was going on. However now, thanks to an Australian team led by Professor Rebecca Giblin and drawing on a team of lawyers, data scientists and others, there is an impressive body of data about what eLending looks like for libraries. This is available at http://elendingproject.org/.

Professor Giblin’s work is in fact based on three smaller studies: 1) one looking across 546 culturally significant books across different platforms in Australia, 2) one looking at the same set of books on one platform across Australia, NZ, US, Canada and the UK, and 3) one looking across almost 100 000 eBooks available in at least one of the five countries, through one platform.

Throughout this work, the aim was to look at questions around availability (what eBooks could libraries buy), and accessibility (on what terms – cost/licences – they could buy them).

This blog summarises the information, and you can watch the presentation of the information at last year’s World Library and Information Congress.


Buy Me If You Can?

A first key conclusion is that the availability of eBooks is highly variable. In Australia, of the 546 culturally significant books, individual aggregators only had 62-71% on offer. Looking across the five countries, the figure went from 71% of these key books being available in the US, but only 59% in the UK.

Taking the larger study, 12% of books available in other countries were not in the US or Canada, but this figure rose to 23% in the case of the UK. There appears to be a link between price and availability of books, at least in Australia, NZ and the UK. Hachette has particularly diverse policies – around 90% of their electronic catalogue was available in the US/Canada, but only 3-4% (16 books) in the UK and Australia.


Responding to Demand?

Despite original suspicions that older books (the ‘backlist’) may not be available to libraries, the data seems to show that availability is in fact pretty good, including books from the first half of the 20th century. However, older books are not necessarily licensed in different ways to newer ones, despite the fact that they normally are subject to lower demand and usage.

For libraries, time-limited licences are highly unattractive for books which are valuable, but may not be lent out so frequently. However, they are still frequently used for such older books. Moreover, there is no evidence that prices are any lower either, making back-list books less interesting for libraries. Moreover, in 97% of cases, there is zero choice of licence for libraries, reducing choice.


The Bigger, the Tougher?

A key question at the IFLA level is to ensure that library users enjoy the best possible access to works. This is difficult when licensing and pricing practices vary, disadvantaging users in one country compared to those elsewhere.

Interestingly, this question of variation seems to almost entirely focused on the big five publishers. Looking only at books published by the same publisher in the five jurisdictions, 34% of titles from the ‘big five’ were subject to different licences in different jurisdictions, compared to 0.1% for other publishers.

The same goes for prices – these varied by 20% or more in almost half of cases for the big give, whereas other publishers barely varied at all, even on identical licences. Big five publishers are also more likely to use metered licensing (in particular in the UK), while others use one-copy-one-user in the vast majority of cases.


A Lack of Transparency

Finally, based on the Australian data, it became clear that platforms are not always getting the same deal. They are also unable to compete on price.

In Australia, 41% of titles were subject to different licensing terms from aggregator to aggregator, with serious differences in half of these. Prices varied also, although there was strong secrecy about how these were formed.



The findings offer an important opportunity to understand how libraries and their users are experiencing eLending. It brings welcome transparency to a market which has tended to be seen as fluid and evolving.

Clearly it doesn’t resolve all questions – for example the market impact of eLending (there is no clear evidence either way, although recent evidence from the promotion of one particular book suggests the consequences can be very positive). But it does highlight questions that deserve answers. Crucially, it implies that there are questions about how the market is working now, and raises the question of whether action should be taken.


While eBooks have offered valuable flexibility for readers (and authors), the same flexibility appears not always to benefit and enable libraries to carry out their missions.  eBooks provide a strong example of the risks around the shift from physical ownership to digital licensed access.