Study reveals impact of remote e-lending

Pilot study in English public libraries reveals that remote e-lending is popular with older, more affluent users but could reduce library footfall; best-selling titles accounted for over one-third of loans.

A pilot study of remote e-lending in English public libraries has revealed that such services may drive up e-lending and generate new users, but are likely to appeal to an older, more affluent group of borrowers.

The study was jointly commissioned by the Society of Chief Librarians and The Publishers Association, and funded via the British Library Trust and Arts Council England, following a recommendation of the Sieghart Review into E-Lending in Public Libraries. The research had three aims: to examine borrowers’ behaviour and attitudes in order to assess the demand for remote e-book borrowing; to understand the likely impact of ebook lending on the book trade and authors; and to consider the implications of e-book lending for the library service in general.

Publishers made 893 titles available for borrowing, all of which were considered to be frontlist and 150 of which were released while the pilot was taking place – titles which had largely been unavailable to libraries’ e-book collections. In order to mimic physical loans, only one e-book ‘copy’ could be lent to only one library user at a time; and users had to return the e-books after either seven or twenty-one days.

The pilot did stimulate the borrowing of ebooks, with pilot collection titles being more popular than the authorities’ existing collections, and new users signing up to the service. The report cites positive reactions from users who described the scheme as “a great new development”, and “safeguarding the future of libraries”.

Initial take-up was relatively low: ebook downloads accounted for less than 5% of all fiction borrowing in the participating authorities and new users represented under 5% of active borrowers. In the four authorities, e-lending from the pilot collections declined during the course of the pilot.

The most popular 10% of titles accounted for up to 36% of the loans, suggesting that an offering of bestsellers would attract more users and more borrowing. At the same time 95% of e-book borrowers said a greater range of titles would encourage them to borrow more.

The study found that e-lending users were older, more affluent, and less likely to visit their local libraries than were other library users. 68% were over the age of 45 (compared to 47% of all UK library visitors). They were most likely to discover the e-book service by browsing on the library website, and they said that browsing and borrowing from home was their most favoured reason for using the service.

The four local authorities taking part in the study were Derbyshire County Council, Newcastle County Council, Peterborough City Council, and the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. The titles accounted for up to 35% of the four authorities’ total stocks of e-books, though in Derbyshire the figure was only 9%. However, the report points out that, even with the new titles, e-books made up less than 5% of the authorities’ total fiction collections – a figure that should be borne in mind when assessing the apparently low levels of borrowing recorded in the study.

The pilot report can be downloaded here.