Tag Archives: public libraries

Library Stat of the Week #38: 15 year-olds with access to a library tend to be a year ahead in reading skills than those without

Today marks the beginning of School Library Month, and so it’s a great moment to be looking at available data about the connections between libraries and school performance at the global level.

In last week’s Library Stat of the Week, we used Library Map of the World data concerning numbers of school libraries and compared it with data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (OECD PISA).

This week we look further into the PISA data, in particular that from the 2009 assessment which included a number of questions focused on libraries. While this data was the subject of brief analysis in reports published at the time, little else appears to have been written about this.

PISA as a whole is based not only on practical tests of students’ ability in reading, maths and science, but also includes a lot of contextual questions about issues such as students’ background, habits, and the resources available to them.

As such, the results make it possible to look directly for links between reading performance and the presence and use of libraries in schools, based on results from the same students.

This week, therefore, we start by looking at the overall connections between whether students report having access to libraries, and average literacy scores.

Graph 1 displays this for all countries providing data. The length of the bars indicates the difference in points on the PISA reading scale between 15-year-olds reporting that they do, and do not, have access to a library.

A longer red bar to the right indicates a larger gap in favour of 15-year-olds with access to a library, whereas a blue bar to the right indicates a gap in favour of 15-year-olds without access to a library.

Graph 1: Difference in Literacy Scores Between 15-Year-Olds With and Without Library Access


The key lesson from here is that across all of the countries surveyed, there is, on average, a 30 point gap in favour of 15-year-olds with access to a library. This represents roughly a year’s worth of education.

At the top end, Hungary and France both indicate score differences of over 90 points (around 3 years of learning), and a further seven countries have score differences over 60 points (around 2 years). Only seven countries see students reporting no access to libraries as scoring higher than those who do.

Graph 2: Library Access Gaps and Literacy Scores

Graph 2 looks further, comparing the figures shown in Graph 1 (on the horizontal (x) axis) with the overall average reading score for each country (on the vertical (y) axis).

Interestingly, this indicates that there is very little connection between the two, implying that at almost every level of overall literacy performance, the positive advantage in favour of students with access to libraries is the same.

Graph 3 digs into the different aspects of the OECD’s measure of reading. In effect, PISA breaks down literacy into three key aspects: access and retrieve information (i.e. find key information within texts), integrate and interpret (understand the meaning of what is said), and reflect and evaluate (cross what is read within texts with existing knowledge).

It also includes scores for both continuous texts (such as articles or books) and non-continuous text (such as often found on websites).

Graph 3: Differences in Scores on Aspects of Reading Skills  (Students With  minus Students Without Library Access

Once again looking at the gap between the performance of 15-year-olds who do and do not report having access to a library, the Graph shows relatively little variation across the different skills. The strongest connection between access to libraries and skills is on ‘access and retrieve’, which may well make sense in connection with the sort of extensive region that libraries can offer.


Overall, the figures here are clearly welcome in terms of supporting arguments about the value of access to libraries. Clearly, correlation is not the same thing as causality, and it is likely that schools and communities that offer libraries may well also invest in offering other forms of support.


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.

Filling the Evidence Gap: an Interview with Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Panorama Project


The lending of eBooks by libraries remains an area of controversy, with libraries often facing high prices and difficult licencing conditions, while publishers worry about impacts on sales and revenues to authors.

A key challenge in this has been the relative newness of the format, and the lack of a shared evidence-base for understanding both eLending itself, and its interrelation with wider markets. The Panorama Project is aiming to address this. We interviewed Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Project Lead, to find out more.


How well does anyone understand the eBook market and the place of libraries within it today?


The answer really depends on your perspective and priorities. The size of the overall consumer ebook market is difficult to measure because Amazon owns a significant percentage of it, especially on the self-publishing side, and they don’t publicly share any useful data. OverDrive is the dominant player on the library side, but NPD Bookscan doesn’t track ebook sales the same way they do print, and the American Association of Publishers (AAP) doesn’t break out library sales at all, so there’s no authoritative industry source for context.

Individual publishers generally have a good sense of where their ebook revenue comes from, but it’s mostly “last-click attribution” which heavily favors Amazon and OverDrive, and they generally don’t have a good sense of which factors might be impacting their consumer sales. They also don’t have deep data on what drives those sales, including the role of discoverability through libraries, nor any useful insights into print circulation. The combination of fragmentation and lack of transparency is one of the primary reasons the Panorama Project was initiated.



Why do you think that there is relatively little data out there?


Trade book publishing is a notoriously opaque industry, for a variety of reasons, including private ownership of most major publishers and intermediaries. Movies, music, and video games all have relatively transparent sales data that’s shared publicly and regularly dissected by their respective media outlets, but we rarely learn how many copies the latest New York Times’ (NYT) Bestsellers actually sold in any given week or year—unless it’s the rare breakout hit—despite it being one of the industry’s primary, albeit heavily curated and proprietary, measuring sticks. There are NYT Bestselling authors who’ve sold fewer copies of any book than the average middling video game, but they get to wear the badge anyway.



What impact has this had on the decisions that are being taken by different actors?


It’s led to some publishers making “data-driven” decisions about ebook pricing and access that lack proper context, potentially resulting in unintended changes to consumer behavior. Assuming library access is impacting consumer ebook sales and making strategic decisions based on that assumption is a risky bet—especially if Amazon is the primary source of the data driving that assumption. What if it’s not just library availability, but consumer ebook pricing, competition from other traditional publishers and self-publishers, or other forms of media, that is impacting your sales?

When you limit libraries’ access to your books, you cut off an important discovery and consumption channel for a segment of your audience. And when you do that purposefully, you’re as likely to drive readers to either wait until it’s available or borrow another book they’re interested in that is available, as opposed to converting them to buyers in another channel. If there was more transparency around sales data, and more understanding about discovery and purchase paths, the question of libraries’ actual impact would be a much easier question to answer. That requires purposeful, good faith collaboration. 



Where do you see the Panorama Project as making a difference?


Our primary goal is to encourage more productive, good faith conversations about public libraries in general—from discovery and engagement to direct and indirect impact on sales—so the industry can come to a collaborative consensus on how to measure their impact, whether it’s positive or negative. Our various initiatives are designed to provide data-informed insights on that impact in specific areas, while building a foundation for more effective collaboration moving forward.



How does the Panorama Project work?


A cross-industry Advisory Council with members from Penguin Random House, Sourcebooks, Open Road Media, American Library Association, Audio Publishers Association, NISO, Ingram Content Group, and OverDrive, serves as a sounding board for potential and ongoing initiatives. They offer insight and expertise in different areas to ensure those initiatives can have a measurable impact, and align with Panorama Project’s mission. We partner with different publishers, vendors, and organizations on specific initiatives, and I personally consult with a number of colleagues and experts across the industry for feedback and insights to ensure we’re on the right track.



How international is it or could it be?


We’re currently focused on public libraries in the United States, but we have occasional conversations about potential opportunities to expand our reach as there is international interest in our work. There are no specific plans currently in development, although I’d love to hear feedback from anyone who has ideas.



Clearly, support from OverDrive as one of the major commercial players in the market will raise some eyebrows. Should it?


It’s a fair concern and one I shared when I was initially approached to take on the role as Project Lead. OverDrive identified the need, helped convene the Advisory Council, and brought me on to run things—but our work is never tied to any specific OverDrive agenda, and everything we produce is fully transparent and widely shared for the benefit of the overall industry. The Advisory Council includes members from Penguin Random House, Sourcebooks, Open Road Media, American Library Association, Audio Publishers Association, NISO, Ingram Content Group, and OverDrive. One of our primary research initiatives for 2020—the Immersive Media & Reading 2020 Consumer Survey—is in partnership with the Authors Guild, ALA, Book Industry Study Group, Independent Book Publishers Association, and PubWest. I expect that kind of collaboration will become the norm for all of our future initiatives. 



What findings have you already established?


Some of our early initiatives measured the positive impact of library access on consumer sales on specific titles, most notably debut author Jennifer McGaha’s Flat Broke With Two Goats (Sourcebooks, 2018), the subject of our Community Reading Event Impact Report. Our Readers’ Advisory Impact Committee researched, documented, and analyzed the wide variety of RA title and author recommendation activities used in public libraries, and produced the Readers’ Advisory Directory. That initiative led to further research on Public Library Events & Book Sales which identified major gaps in publishers’ understanding and valuation of the monetary value of those libraries’ organic and purposeful marketing activities. 



What current work are you most excited about?


Our two main initiatives for 2020—the Immersive Media & Reading 2020 Consumer Survey, and Library Marketing Valuation Toolkit—grew out of the realization that a lack of transparency around data in the publishing industry is a major obstacle to establishing an effective foundation for collaboration. I’m particularly excited about the consumer research because it’s been years since anyone’s taken a good look at how book readers’ behaviors have evolved in the wake of ebooks and audiobooks, not to mention other immersive media like streaming and gaming. We’ve partnered with Portland State University and assembled a cross-industry committee to collaborate on developing the methodology and the survey itself, ensuring that the findings will not only be credible, but actionable. COVID-19 forced us to adjust our timeline, but we’re expecting to field the survey in the early Fall and have initial findings published before the end of the year.



How do you see COVID-19 changing the landscape of library eLending?


In the short-term, we’ve already seen reports of increased engagement with libraries’ electronic resources which, of course, leads to increased spending to meet that demand. Unfortunately, few libraries are going to come out of this period with increased budgets, so hard decisions will need to be made about materials budgets across the country. The longer the pandemic lasts, the more likely temporarily modified consumer behaviors will become permanent preferences, so I suspect we’ll see an acceleration in engagement with, and increased spending on, digital content. If schools face a prolonged period of remote learning through the Fall and into Winter, even if it’s a hybrid approach, that acceleration will probably be even faster.



What are the next big questions needing answering to your mind?


The main questions I proposed at the end of 2019 remain unanswered, and are arguably even more critical to answer in light of current events.

  1. How much of public libraries’ estimated $1.5 billion overall materials budget goes toward trade publishing’s estimated $12 billion in projected revenue for 2019, and where does that rank against other channels?
  2. How much marketing value do public libraries create for publishers through readers’ advisory services, physical shelf and online catalogue visibility, hosted author events, and community book clubs?
  3. How do library patrons discover and acquire the books they read and in which formats, and how does that fit with other media consumption and buying habits?

We’ve taken steps towards helping answer the second and third questions with our 2020 initiatives, while the first one still requires a level of collaboration across the industry that we haven’t seen yet. I’m hopeful that we’ll be in a better position to answer that one in 2021.

Library Stat of the Week #27: On average, there are 4.7 volunteers for every full-time library worker

Volunteers can play an important role in helping libraries to go further in delivering on their missions. In turn, public and community libraries can be attractive places for individuals to come and offer their time.

At the same time, in some countries there is concern about over-reliance on volunteers. This can be particularly the case when staff and volunteers are seen as interchangeable by governments or other decision-makers looking to cut costs, rather than extend offers.

Both the IFLA Public and School Library Manifestos underline the importance of the presence of a librarian in order to guide services.

Clearly, understanding the respective roles of staff and volunteers depends on looking at individual libraries.

However, we can start to get an overview of the situation between countries by looking at data from the Library Map of the World.

42 countries provide information about numbers of volunteers, counted as the number of individuals who volunteer.

While these figures do not indicate how many hours they work (as opposed to data on the number of library workers, which is calculated in terms of full-time equivalents), they start to give an idea of to what extent library systems draw on volunteers to function.

Graph 1: Volunteers and Staff in Public and Community Libraries

Graph 1 looks at the situation at the global level, and broken down across different regions.

Starting with the figures for the world as a whole (the 42 countries for which data is available, accounting for 276826 libraries and 159141 FTE staff), it appears that there is 0.67 of a full-time library worker per public or community library, but 3.3 volunteers.

In other words, there are almost 5 volunteers for every full-time staff member of a public or community library.

These figures, are, however, strongly affected by the numbers from one country – the Republic of Korea, which alone registers over 433 000 volunteers.

Once these numbers are discounted, the figures are much closer together – 0.67 FTE staff per library and 1.33 volunteers, making for just over 2 volunteers for every FTE member of staff.

Looking across the regions, it is only in Europe and Asia where the number of volunteers is higher than the number of FTE staff in public and community libraries. Of course, with only 42 countries providing data (for example, figures for North America are from Canada alone), the picture is far from complete.

Graph 2: Volunteers and Staff in Public and Community Libraries (G20 Countries)Graph 2 presents data for those larger (G20) economies for which data is available. Among these countries, it is relatively common to have more volunteers than FTE staff, with Germany, France, the UK and Japan in this situation.

Once again, Korea is an extreme case, with data indicating that there are on average 430 volunteers per library. While there are relatively high levels of staffing per library (7.9 compared to the global average of 0.67), this still means around 50 volunteers per full time staffer.

The other countries with the highest ratio of volunteers to full-time staff are Nepal (14.3:1), Austria (10.4:1), Singapore (10.4:1), Germany (4.6:1) and the United Kingdom (3:1).


Countries and territories covered by available data are: Armenia, Austria, the Bahamas, Benin, Bhutan, Bonaire, Sint Eustatius en Saba, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Cameroon, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Czechia, Denmark, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, Estonia, Eswatini, France, Germany, Guinea, Guyana, Hungary, India, Israel, Jamaica, Japan, Lithuania, Mongolia, Nepal, Nicaragua, Paraguay, the Republic of Korea, Saint Lucia, Singapore, Slovakia, Spain, Suriname, Thailand, Uganda, and the United Kingdom.


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.

Meeting NEETs’ Needs: Libraries and Youth Skills

Today is World Youth Skills Day, focusing on the importance of giving young people the skills they need for economic and social integration.

As the United Nations’ own website underlines, young people (aged 15-24) were, even before the crisis, three times more likely to be unemployed than older workers. With the same group often in more precarious work, this figure is likely to have got worse during the pandemic, as was the case with the recession following the financial crash of 2008.

While many young people are not working because they are studying, for many – around 21%, based on 2015 figures from the World Bank – are not. Some may be in informal work, but this is not necessarily a better situation, given that this can be even more precarious and less likely to lead to a career. They are described as Not in Employment, Education or Training (NEET).

This is a serious issue. Periods out of work can have ‘scarring’ effects, leading to unemployment or lower skilled or less fulfilling work later in life, as the OECD has underlined.

As a result, a high share of NEETs can be an indicator of a higher rate of inequality later. This is why it is included as one of the indicators used in the Development and Access to Information report, produced by IFLA in partnership with the Technology and Social Change Group at the University of Washington.

To look further into the details, there is strong regional variation, at least among the countries for which data is available. While only 4.6% of young adults in East Asia are NEET, this rises to 23% in the Middle East and North Africa, and 28% in Southern Asia Oceania. In some countries, the figure is higher than 50% – notably the Maldives and Trinidad and Tobago.

Looking across the countries for which DA2I Country Analyses are available, Trinidad and Tobago indeed stands out for its high share of NEETs, although Bulgaria also has a higher rate than average for developed countries.

Meanwhile, Argentina, Austria, Ecuador, Finland and Slovenia all have lower shares of NEETs than both the global and relevant regional average.

For those countries which do have higher shares of NEETs, libraries can offer a valuable tool.

As set out in our blog for last year’s Youth Skills Day, information skills are becoming increasingly important, and libraries can provide an excellent place for developing these.

Furthermore, as our summary of evidence from World Library and Information Congress papers has underlined, libraries are also realising their potential to act as gateways for people of all ages to new skills, jobs or entrepreneurship opportunities.

Indeed, as the chapter of last year’s Development and Access to Information report focused on SDG 4 – Quality Education – by Dr Katarina Popovic underlined, ‘Access to information is an important precondition for achieving the targets of SDG 4. Without a full recognition of this in the discourse about the 2030 Agenda, accompanied by greater investment in education and lifelong learning, huge groups of people will be left behind by 2030.’ This applies as much to young adults as anyone else.

In those countries which do have high shares of NEETs and well-developed public library field – as is the case in both Bulgaria and Trinidad and Tobago, there is therefore an interesting potential to work through these institutions to offer new possibilities to young adults.

Where library networks are less strong, developing them may help strengthen the infrastructure available for helping NEETs, as well as providing a wide range of other public goods.

Making best use of existing library networks and supporting their further development could be a great way of helping build skills and resilience among youth, even in the most difficult times.

Library Stat of the Week #26: Countries with more public and community librarians tend to have higher levels of social cohesion

Eric Klinenberg’s book, Palaces for the People, has popularised the idea of libraries as key parts of the ‘social infrastructure’ of the communities they serve.

This role matters, because social infrastructure supports the development of social capital – strong connections between people, often associated with trust – commonly seen as a key driver of development.

For example, when there are strong levels of trust between people, they need to spend less time protecting their own interests, and can cooperate more easily to achieve other things, such as a strong economy, inclusive social policies, or action to tackle climate change.

Trust can be built through common references and rules, often themselves developed through contacts between people. Libraries – especially public and community libraries – support both, allowing members of communities to meet and exchange in a shared space, often supported by shared resources and heritage.

Klinenberg looks at the role of libraries in building social cohesion at the level of individual cases. But what can we tell at the macro-level?

To do this, we can cross statistics from IFLA’s Library Map of the World with those from the OECD’s Society at a Glance 2016 publication. As previously in our Library Stat of the Week series, we have looked at figures both for numbers of public and community libraries and library workers.

Graph 1: Public and Community Libraries and Library Workers and Levels of TrustGraph 1 compares numbers of libraries and library workers (on the horizontal X-axis) with the share of the population who felt that other people could be trusted. Each dot represents one country.

This graph indicates a positive but relatively weak correlation between numbers of library workers and levels of trust, and relatively little relationship at all between numbers of libraries and trust.

There is a positive story in here, as regards library workers of course. As we have indicated in previous posts, it is clear that the presence of librarians can play a decisive role in ensuring that libraries achieve their outcomes.

However, as concerns the number of libraries, the figure is perhaps a little disappointing. Nonetheless, from looking at the graph, it stands out that the relationship may vary as the number of libraries per 100 000 people grows.

Graph 2: Public and Community Libraries and Levels of TrustGraph 2 looks further into this question, including a trend line only for countries with fewer than 20 libraries per 100 000 people (i.e. one library per 5000 people).

The difference here is striking. There is a much stronger positive correlation between numbers of libraries and trust in countries with up to 20 libraries per 100 000 people (the light blue line), but after this, the relationship becomes much flatter.

Graph 3: Public and Community Library Workers and Levels of TrustGraph 3 repeats the same process for countries with up to 40 public and community library workers per 100 000 people (the yellow line), coming to a similar conclusion. The relationship between library workers and trust is much stronger among countries below the threshold of 40 workers per 100K.

This finding is an interesting one, and would support the conclusion that in particular in countries which invest less in libraries (as measured by the number of public and community libraries and library workers), there are significant gains to be had from strengthening the field (or costs from making cuts).

Beyond a certain threshold, the gains (or costs) in terms of social cohesion are less dramatic, although as seen in previous posts, there may be impacts in other fields, such as skills or equality.

As always in this series, it is important to note that correlation is not causality. Further research would be needed to assess to what extent other factors may be in play, and it is of course also possible that societies that invest more in libraries tend to be those who believe more in supporting communal services and activities.

Nonetheless, the data here does provide a useful indicator that countries with more public and community libraries and library workers, there tends to be higher levels of social cohesion.


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 #20: Countries with more public librarians have more adults engaged in non-formal education… but there is more to do!

In last week’s Library Stat of the Week (#19), we looked at the connection between literacy skills among adults and numbers of public and community libraries and librarians, finding a correlation between numbers of librarians per 100 000 people and numbers of adults with low skills. In general, more librarians tend to mean fewer adults with low skills.

The reason for looking at these numbers is the fact that public libraries in particular traditionally have a role in facilitating literacy and learning in their communities.

This often happens in a very informal way, for example simply through independent reading or other use of library resources. However, libraries also have a role as a venue for – or portal to – more formal opportunities.

As underlined in the chapter of the 2019 Development and Access to Information report on SDG4, libraries can indeed be a vital part of countries’ infrastructure for lifelong learning.

So this week, we’ll look at the relationship between numbers of public and community libraries and the numbers of adults (aged 25-64) currently engaged in learning. Once again, we’ll use data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competences (PIAAC). Library data comes from IFLA’s Library Map of the World.

Graph 1: Public and Community Libraries/Librarians and Adults Engaged in Non-Formal Learning

The first graph looks at the relationship between the number of public and community libraries and librarians per 100 000 people and the share of the adult population in non-formal education (source). Each dot represents a country for which data is available for adult learning, and for numbers either of public and community libraries and librarians.

In a similar result to that found in last week’s Library Stat of the Week, there is correlation in the case of public and community librarians, with more librarians tending to mean more people engaged in non-formal learning. The link is less strong in the case of public and community libraries.

As with last week, this could be explained by the fact that it is the presence and support of library and information workers that helps people to make connections with learning opportunities.

The next question is to see whether there is any sign of a connection between numbers of public and community libraries and librarians, and the number of people with lower levels of education (who have not completed secondary education) involved in adult education.

Graph 1: Public and Community Libraries/Librarians and Adults with only Primary EducationEngaged in Learning

Graph 2 does this, using figures for adults involved in all sorts of learning (formal, non-formal and a combination of the two) (source). This provides a less positive picture, with no obvious relationship between access to learning and numbers of librarians, and even a negative one with numbers of public libraries.

This suggests that governments are not yet making full use of libraries in order to help those who have not had the opportunity to reach the end of secondary education to access education. Given the evidence of what libraries can do, this is a chance missed.

Nonetheless, it is also worth bearing in mind that some countries have lower levels of adult education in learning than others in general, which helps put the number of those with only primary education in context. Other drivers of access to lifelong learning can of course be factors such as how this is paid for, or the volume and attractiveness of the offer.

We can get an alternative perspective here by looking at the ‘learning gap’ – the difference between the share of adults with university and only primary education who are currently engaged in non-formal and/or formal education (source).

Graph 1: Public and Community Libraries/Librarians and the Learning Gap among Adult Learners with only Primary, and University Education

This in interesting as an indicator of equality, as a smaller gap means that there is a lower risk of people starting with less education falling further behind. Graph 3 shows what happens when we compare the size of this gap with numbers of public and community libraries and librarians.

Encouragingly, we see a return to the sorts of figures seen in Graph 1 and last week’s Library Stat of the Week, with larger numbers of public and community librarians per 100 000 people correlating with smaller gaps in access to learning.

While, as ever, correlation does not mean causality, one explanation here would be the role that libraries can play in ensuring that adults can have a second chance. While those who have been to university may feel more confident in looking for opportunities for opportunities for further learning, or be in jobs that welcome and support this, this may be less likely for those with only primary education. Libraries can help fill the gap.

With many – especially those in lower-skilled, lower-paid jobs – facing unemployment in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments would do well to invest both in skills provision, and the libraries that help those who need it most to find it.


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.

Is the Library eBook Market Working? Identifying Areas for Further Investigation

With the obligation to close their doors for the safety of users and staff alike, the ability of libraries to offer services digitally has never been so important.

Libraries have responded, diverting available resources and energies into providing online storytimes and consultations, and developing their presence on social media.

Some have sought to reassign budgets from physical to digital collections, sometimes with supplementary funding offered by public authorities. This experience is, for many, making clear the differences in what libraries’ money can buy in the offline and online worlds, especially as concerns eBooks.

This is not a new concern of course. Libraries have been highlighting concerns about the way the library eLending market has been working for years, with high prices, restrictive terms, and simple non-availability of works all regularly featuring.

While much of the attention has been on ‘trade’ eBooks – those lent out by public libraries – this is an issue that also affects academic libraries (as our interview with Johanna Anderson underlined).

In terms of solutions, the focus has tended to be on copyright, and how to update rules in order to ensure that the provisions that allow for libraries to work with physical books should apply also to electronic ones.

However, copyright – as well as exceptions to it – are a response to problems in a market, either because a public good is not being supplied, or because the structure and operation of the market is working to the disadvantage of one party or another. This, of course, is the job of competition and consumer policy.

Following on from an earlier blog on this site about how competition – or anti-trust – policy applies in the world of libraries, this one looks to explore what evidence we have – and what evidence we might need – in order to encourage competition and markets authorities to look into the way that library eBook lending operates.

To do so, it will look at a number of the steps usually taken in competition investigations in order to assess the need for an intervention.


Are there excessive profits?

A first potential indicator of problems with the market is when producers are making profits that can be considered higher than usual.

The theory at least suggests that if a market is competitive, then high profits will tend to attract more companies. This will generate more competition, which will drive profits down, for the benefit of consumers.

Looking at eBook markets, it does not seem to be the case that ‘trade’ publishers are enjoying huge profits, although the big players have seen rises in recent years, often however on the back of audiobooks.

On the academic side, major publishers do make high profit levels, although again not necessarily just on the back of their eBook operations.

However, profit levels alone are not a sure sign of a competition issue.


Is the market concentrated?

In many investigations, the next place to look in trying to work out whether a market is not working is whether there is a limited number of competitors. A large share of the market held by just one or a few companies could indicate a problem.

When it comes to eBooks, the picture is different for ‘trade’ and academic books. In the case of the former, there are plenty of publishers putting out novels and other materials.

With academic journals, there is a well-documented concentration of much of the market in the hands of a number of publishing companies, and concern every time that there is talk of a merger or take-over.

However, even were one of the big publishing companies to disappear, the market would remain to compare favourably with that for internet providers or airlines in many countries.

Of course, this is to assume that the market is for eBooks in general. Alternatively, we can look at the market for a single book. In this case, the rightholder has a monopoly thanks to copyright.

Clearly this is a violation of perfect competition, but one that – at least theoretically – can be justified in terms of giving the rightholder the time they need to recoup their investments. Whether the current length of copyright terms in international law has anything to do with economic logic is another question.

Crucially, the monopoly awarded to the rightholder of a particular eBook is easier to justify when these are substitutable – i.e. when eBook A by publisher X could broadly be replaced by eBook B by publisher Y.

When, however, this is not the case – i.e. because a student or researcher needs a very specific work, or a library card-holder wants to read the latest bestseller, not something a bit like it – there is more of a challenge.

Another solution would be to allow physical books to compete – for example by allowing a library to digitise a physical copy in their collection, and give access on a one-copy-one-user basis. However, this idea is deeply contested.

Even initiatives focusing on out-of-commerce works, such as Controlled Digital Lending, have led to threats of legal action, while the Hathi Trust’s work to provide digitised copies of books now is largely justified by the fact that access to physical copies is impossible.

Were a competition investigation to be launched, a key question would therefore be how the market is defined, and whether allowing physical books to compete with eBooks could bring a degree more competitiveness to markets for individual works without undermining the possibilities for rightholders to recoup investments.


Are there barriers to entry?

A further step in an assessment of competition is to look at whether there are issues that may be preventing competitors from entering a market, and competing with existing companies by offering cheaper alternatives.

Clearly if we are considering each individual eBook as a separate market, then there is a huge barrier to entry – copyright. But as suggested before, just like other forms of intellectual property, copyright at least originally had a form of economic logic.

But even if we look at academic eBooks as a whole, there can also be challenges. As set out in our interview with Johanna Anderson, publishers can tend to want users to access their eBooks through their platforms.

However, if libraries don’t want to – or can’t – buy access to every platform available, the only alternative  is to buy individual eBooks from vendors, but often at prices which have been set many times higher than those of print equivalents. This serves to push libraries towards publisher platforms, despite the fact that the library may only want a small share of the eBooks available there.

The effect of this is, effectively, to push libraries towards buying access to bigger platforms, potentially at the expense of spending on smaller, newer publishers.

This risks creating a barrier to entry by smaller players (or forcing them out of the market) by making it more difficult for libraries to allocate money more freely between publishers on the basis of what users actually want.

This situation is similar to that already seen with the ‘big deals’ offered for bundles of journals, which a number of countries are beginning to seek to abandon, even at the risk of losing access to content that researchers and students want.

In the trade eBook sector, there can also be issues with barriers to entry, for example when libraries or library systems are obliged to buy a fixed number of books.

The same goes when it is possible to sell bestsellers under terms that mean that they ‘capture’ large share of library budgets, leaving less space for new or emerging voices. In each case, established players gain an advantage that risks creating barriers for others.

A competition investigation here could shed more light on the subject of whether specific practices of bundling, or minimum purchases, have a negative effect on new entrants or customers.


Is there market power?

A final issue to explore, linked to the question of barriers to entry, is whether a particular player enjoys market power.

This implies that one side of the equation (a producer or buyer) has a freedom to change conditions – for example by raising or lowering prices, or imposing tougher or looser terms – and the other has little option but to accept, for example because there is no alternative.

This can be a real concern for libraries faced with demand from users – from readers coming to a public library, to students or researchers at an academic one.

As already underlined in the previous section, the way that the academic eBook market works can make it possible to increase prices steeply while libraries have little option other than to accept, or face frustration from users.

Similarly, the work carried out by the library eLending project in Australia has underlined to what extent libraries’ choice is limited given their need to meet patron demand. As a result, rightholders have a broadly free hand to set higher prices, although of course may themselves lack the information to do so effectively.

The particular situation of libraries – in particular their mission, often set out in law, to meet the information needs of users – can make them particularly vulnerable to exercise of market power.

A competition investigation could take the information already gathered in Australia, and look to understand more broadly the degree to which libraries are constrained in decision-making, and to what extent this is allowing prices and terms for eBooks that would otherwise be impossible.


Clearly, this blog has drawn only on a limited number of examples, and can only point at possibilities, rather than draw any conclusions. Nonetheless, competition investigations into the library market are not a new idea.

In 2018, the European Universities Association proposed one looking at broader scholarly publishing, and a group of individual researchers have sought to launch a case on a specific company, as did UK researchers on the subject of non-disclosure agreements in particular.

So far, eBooks have tended not to attract quite the same attention as other fields, but with it uncertain for how long libraries are going to need to be primarily digital institutions, there may be value in a deeper look.

With public and institutional funding likely to become scarcer in the coming years, ensuring it is well spent is going to be a priority.


[Corrected on 26 May 2020 to underline that the reference to concentration in the academic market should have emphasised journals, rather than books]