Library Consortium Tests Interlibrary Loans of e-Books

February 17, 2014

Duke University’s libraries lend printed books to students and faculty members at other institutions all the time via interlibrary loan. But the university’s 900,000 e-books are off limits to anyone beyond the campus.

Robert L. Byrd, Duke’s associate university librarian for collections and user services, would love to lend out those e-books. But he can’t even share them with users at nearby North Carolina Central University, North Carolina State University, or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Because of technical and licensing restrictions, library patrons at those universities—Duke’s partners in the Triangle Research Libraries Network—can see e-books in the library catalog, but they must visit Duke’s campus to read them. "The inability to loan e-books really undermines the services we provide to our users," Mr. Byrd says.

Academic libraries have a long, proud tradition of sharing books and journals through interlibrary loan. But as Mr. Byrd can attest, they’ve been stymied in their efforts to extend that practice to e-books, even though libraries are buying more and more content in digital format.

Worried about security and sales, many publishers and vendors permit individual e-book chapters to be shared but don’t routinely include the lending of whole e-books in library contracts. Even when licenses do allow e-book lending, libraries typically lack the technology to make it work. You can’t just pop an e-book into an envelope and ship it off by delivery van or the post office.

But lending e-books may soon get easier. This spring a pilot project called Occam’s Reader will test software custom-built to make it both easy and secure for libraries to share e-book files while keeping publishers happy—or so the software’s creators hope.

‘The Wild West’

The Greater Western Library Alliance, a consortium of 33 academic libraries, came up with the idea. Developers at Texas Tech University and the University of Hawaii-Manoa, both members of the alliance, created the software, and the publisher Springer agreed to let its e-books be guinea pigs in the experiment.

Scheduled to begin in March, the pilot will run for a year. If it works well enough, the library alliance hopes to make Occam’s Reader available to other academic libraries and perhaps to persuade other publishers to join in.

Joni M. Blake, the alliance’s executive director, says the idea for Occam’s Reader dates to a meeting a few years ago. "People got to talking and saying, What are we doing? We’re buying all these e-books with licenses that say we can’t lend them to our consortial friends and neighbors."

Everyone agreed that had to change. But nobody had built a good-enough software platform for lending e-books. Other groups, including the Triangle Research Libraries Network, had tried, only to be tripped up by problems like how to respect copyright while giving designated borrowers access to only the specific books they wanted.

"It’s complicated in that there are copyright laws and licensing provisions that we have to make sure the software complies with," Ms. Blake says. "We didn’t really have a model for how it’s supposed to work." Librarians worry about being sued for copyright violations by publishers, who fear they’ll lose sales if they allow e-book lending. "It’s scary and kind of the Wild West," she says.

To road-test the software, the alliance knew it needed to have a publisher on board. Springer seemed like a good choice because it has "historically been pretty easy to work with," Ms. Blake says. The libraries approached Springer officials "to see if they would scream or flinch or actually welcome the project with open arms, and it turned out to be the latter."

The Razor’s Sharpness

Building the software fell to a team of Texas Tech and University of Hawaii developers led by Ryan Litsey, the document-delivery librarian at Texas Tech. They took the project’s name from Occam’s Razor, a philosophical and scientific concept that discourages unnecessary complexity when approaching a theory or problem. Mr. Litsey paraphrases it this way: The simplest explanation tends to be the best. Approaching the technical problem of how to lend an e-book file, he says, the Occam’s Reader team asked, "What’s the easiest way we can do this?"

The developers came up with a straightforward, frills-free solution. Using the web-based Occam’s Reader software, a lending library takes a stripped-down version of an e-book and loads it onto a secure web server. (Publisher metadata is removed in the process, Mr. Litsey says, to keep the feel of a print-book loan and—more important from a marketing perspective—as a compromise to preserve the potential sales appeal of publishers’ enhanced versions.)

The patron who requested the book at another library receives an email with a username, a password, and a link to a log-in page. He or she can then sign in and read the desired book. At the end of the designated interlibrary-loan period, whatever it is, the file will disappear from the server. Occam’s Reader is also designed to work easily with ILLiad, a widely used platform for electronic interlibrary loan.

Borrowed e-books can be read but not copied, printed out, or downloaded. The idea is to give borrowers quick access while reassuring publishers that copyrighted content will remain secure and can be shared without eating into sales.

But the minimalist approach could put off readers who want to do more with books than just read them. Will patrons be frustrated that they can’t print or download the books? And will e-book lending cut into publisher sales? The pilot should help answer those questions.

"It may be a laughable goal, but we’re really trying to please all the parties," Mr. Litsey says. In helping patrons borrow e-books and librarians lend them, "we don’t want to replace the books that their university may buy," he says. "We want to meet an immediate need that their university just isn’t able to satisfy."

A ‘Foot in the Door’

The need is becoming more urgent as libraries buy more content in digital form. "So much of the recent material is in e-book form, and the more recently purchased materials tend to be more heavily used," Duke’s Mr. Byrd says.

For an institution like Hawaii’s Manoa’s campus, geographical isolation and the cost of shipping printed books make e-book loans especially appealing. Naomi I. Chow, the external-services program librarian, says her university’s library patrons make as many as 30,000 interlibrary-loan requests a year, about a third of them for books. (The rest are for journal articles.) Like many libraries, Hawaii’s buys more electronic content all the time. Because of licensing restrictions, "we’re not even able to share within our own UH system," Ms. Chow says.

She helped tap her university’s software talent to work with Mr. Litsey’s Texas Tech group. Occam’s Reader, she hopes, will convince publishers that e-book lending can work for them. They once fretted about libraries’ lending digital copies of journal articles, she says, but got used to the idea once they realized they weren’t losing sales because of it.

"That’s what we’re hoping to get with Occam’s Reader"—that lending e-books will be as accepted and as commonplace as interlibrary lending of digital articles, Ms. Chow says. "We thought this is a way of getting our foot in the door and starting that conversation. We’ll see if the patrons, the real users, will be willing to accept this."

‘A New Course’

Springer representatives, meanwhile, sound optimistic. "This will give us a kind of nice way to test" electronic interlibrary loan, says Jason Chabak, academic-licensing manager for the company. If the pilot works well, it could encourage Springer to include lending of full e-books in more licenses and "help us become a little more liberal."

Like libraries, publishers are moving in an ever-more-electronic direction. Occam’s Reader arrives as Springer is "making the transition from a traditional publishing house to an electronic-first publishing house," says Robert Boissy, an account-development manager for the company. "We’re setting off on a new course here with whole e-book loans," he adds. "Libraries have been very good partners at policing" interlibrary loans of e-journal articles, and "we have a history of trusting them to do the right kind of loaning."

No money will change hands as part of the pilot, but Springer stands to gain some useful and potentially lucrative data from it, like which e-book titles or subject areas are most requested by which institutions. That could help Springer tailor future sales pitches, according to Mr. Boissy and Mr. Chabak. (The project will not collect information about individual patrons’ identities or reading habits.)

Mr. Chabak doesn’t see any real risk to Springer. "It’s really locked software. It doesn’t allow for any copying or pasting," he says of Occam’s Reader. Besides, he says, "we could always pull out."