High costs, onerous rules keep e-libraries small

High costs, onerous rules keep e-libraries small
A reader enjoys a 3-D pictorial book, which shows the characteristics of insects at the Chiyoda Library in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.

Despite the increasingly widespread readership of electronic books, e-book loan services at libraries show no signs of catching on.

Why don't more people use these apparently useful digital libraries? What are the challenges these services face, and how will they be used in the future?

Digital libraries offer considerable benefits for both users and libraries. People who find it difficult to visit a library, such as the elderly and those who are extremely busy, can borrow a book anytime anywhere, simply by using their personal computer or some other terminal.

E-books do not suffer from damage or deterioration, and people simply lose access to the books once the loan period expires, so there is no danger of returning them late.

There is also no issue of space with e-books, and they provide such useful functions as the ability to enlarge or reduce the size of the text, and text-to-speech capabilities.

Nevertheless, there are only 30 digital libraries in the nation, according to research by the Japan Library Association, although there are varying definitions of what constitutes a digital library.

This means that of the 3,244 public libraries nationwide in fiscal 2014, only about 1 per cent offer e-book services. Likewise, less than 2 per cent of local governments - 1,718 in April 2014 - provide such services.

A key reason these figures are so small is the relatively few e-books available for loan. Also, most of the books that are available were published many years ago.

According to an estimate by hon.jp, Inc., the operator of an e-book search engine, there are more than 750,000 e-book titles currently on the market. However, the number available to borrow at libraries ranges from only a few thousand to slightly more than 10,000.

This is because the loaning of e-books is considered to be a public transmission under the Copyright Law, so unlike printed books, the copyright holder's permission is needed to make e-books available for loan.

Furthermore, a library buys the right to access an e-book, not an actual book that can be stocked at the library. It is possible, therefore, that the library may be unable to access a book at some point in the future.

E-books for use at libraries also cost more than what the general public pays for them, and more than printed books. And quite often libraries are asked to purchase them in bulk so that the same e-books can be read simultaneously by many people, meaning a considerable expense.

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