A few years ago I posted a note to the Liblicense mail group to the effect that sooner or later, inter-library loan would disappear. This was not a welcome post for many people, and I now have come to believe that my comment was technically correct, but that the affordances of ILL will persist, though from a different source.
For print books, ILL makes perfect sense. Publishers of print books pretty much forget about them when they leave the warehouse. In the past, after a print book was published, it would remain available (that is, in print) as long as it was profitable to keep reprinting it. Most books at some point went out of print. What copies remained were on library shelves or in the collections of individuals. So if a library had a patron who requested a title that was not in the library’s collection, the only recourse was to search for the book among used-book merchants (not as easy task as it is now with Internet commerce) or to borrow it from another library. Over time, the systems for loaning books got more sophisticated and efficient. To this day, ILL is a feature of all academic libraries, which are organized into networks for borrowing and lending.
ILL is not free. There are significant administrative costs in handling and shipping books around. I have heard estimates of this cost that range from $25 to $40 per volume. Perhaps readers of this blog have more recent information, but it is not possible to move physical goods around without incurring some costs. On the other hand, none of this money finds its way to publishers and authors. ILL, in other words, is a distribution method set up and managed by librarians with no involvement of publishers.
And that is why publishers don’t like it. Of course, they don’t have much to complain about if a book has gone out of print, but they have always believed that ILL erodes their market and that they should be able to find a way to profit from it.
With e-books, everything changes. Since the “first sale” doctrine of copyright law does not apply to digital texts (since exchanging a copy requires someone to make a new copy), publishers can and do restrict ILL for electronic books. A few publishers have broken this mold, but most publishers fear that ILL raises the dreaded scenario of selling a single copy of a book and then watching as it is loaned repeatedly from library to library, essentially obliterating any further market for that title. It is a property of digital technology that such digital sharing costs almost nothing and can be accomplished with a single mouse-click. It is for this reason that I asserted that ILL would disappear in due course, because it destabilized the market for books once all the books were digital.
Patron-driven acquisitions (PDA), however, has properties that may mitigate this. Let’s run through some scenarios:
- The scenario for print books. Library A has a very large collection. Library B, which is located nearby, is much smaller. One day a patron of Library B requests a print book that is not in Library B’s collection. Library B first attempts to purchase the title, but it is long out of print and is very expensive to purchase from antiquarian booksellers. So Library B turns to Library A for help. With an ILL system in place, the book is loaned to Library B for a specified period of time, after which the book is returned to Library A’s collection. The patron’s request has been satisfied (though it took some time to make the book available), but the libraries have incurred some costs in handling the loan. After the loan is complete, Library B does not have a copy of the book in its collection. So there is a fair amount of cost for a transitory gain.
- The scenario for e-books, no ILL, and no PDA. Library A has the ebook in its collection, Library B does not. A patron requests the book from Library B, but with no authorized ILL program, Library B cannot provide the book by borrowing it from Library A. There is no monetary cost in this, but the patron leaves unsatisfied. No one is happy with this scenario.
- The scenario for e-books, no ILL, but with PDA. Once again, Library A has the book in its collection, but Library B does not. What Library B does have, however, is a relationship with a PDA vendor, which has the title in its catalogue. The patron searches on Library B’s OPAC, finds a record for the title, and requests it. It is delivered with the speed of an ebook. If the patron simply browses the book a bit, there is no charge. If the patron reads a significant chunk of the book, the library is charged for a rental. If the patron reads a great deal of the book, the library purchases the title outright. In this scenario, Library A is not involved with the transaction. Library B is pleased to be able to provide the book to the patron, though it incurs some cost (though perhaps less than the cost of the entire book and perhaps less than the administrative cost of borrowing a print book). The patron is satisfied. And here is a new development: the publisher is compensated for the use by Library B.
An emergent property of PDA, in other words, is that it may solve the ILL problem for e-books, providing a quick way to satisfy patron requests, perhaps at a reduced cost, even as publishers get a return on their investment.
This ILL scenario may even coax some publishers, who are wary about PDA, to participate in these programs. Since PDA may erode book sales, some publishers would rather that PDA would simply go away. But the ILL scenario claws back some of the lost revenue. Indeed, there may be other ways to regain revenue lost to PDA programs (assuming that PDA will in fact reduce book sales in the first place), some of which will only be discovered as PDA programs become more widespread and provide more data for analysis.
E-books and PDA represent significant changes to the supply chain for books. There is a whole new ecosystem under development here, and the precise workings of this environment are only now coming into view.