/ Technology

Libraries beware: online ebook lending is the future

Book with light coming out of it

In the US you can lend Kindle books, and a new website has launched to match lenders and borrowers online. Is this yet another nail in the coffin for the humble local library?

The Kindle Lending Club, which launched recently in the US, deals with the single biggest problem with lending ebooks: finding someone to lend to and borrow from.

What started as a Facebook group has quickly grown into a website with 4,000 users and nearly 3,500 lendable books. Provided you’re a US user (Amazon hasn’t enabled book lending in the UK yet) you log in, search for books you want to lend and borrow, and the community does the rest.

It sounds great, but there are issues to iron out.

Altruism required for lending to work

One obvious problem is that the club depends on the kindness of strangers. There’s no particular incentive to lend books as opposed to borrowing them, unless the lenders actively seek out reciprocal users.

The motivation is further dented by Amazon’s limitations on lending books. Each can only be lent once and publishers can opt out of lending altogether, reducing the number of books available to users.

Amazon’s system does solve one big problem with lending books, though – getting them back.

Unlike lending physical books, where the likelihood of getting your book back is slim to none, Kindle books are returned automatically after two weeks. Not so great if you haven’t finished reading the book yet, but at least the lender knows they’ll have their property returned – and it won’t be dog-eared.

Online lending is the future

Though it’s evidently early days for online lending, the likes of the Kindle Lending Club are undoubtedly the future of book loans. Some libraries are dabbling in ebook lending themselves, but pure online services are a far more compelling option. Why traipse down to the local library when there are thousands of like-minded book lovers willing to share their wares online?

Moreover, as we’ve seen with film rental services like LoveFilm (recently bought by Amazon) there’s ample opportunity for online book clubs where you pay to loan as many books as you like. Who’s putting money on Amazon launching just such a service?

Finally, if you were in any doubt as to the success of ebooks, Amazon recently announced that Kindle books outsold paperbacks for the first time in the fourth quarter last year, and outsold hardbacks three times over. The third generation Kindle also surpassed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as its all-time bestseller.

On this evidence, I’d say ebooks are here to stay, and libraries will have to adapt to survive.


Surely the joy of a library is the opportunity to wander round see a title that looks interesting have a quick look and either borow it it put it back, an activity which takes maybe 2 minutes. If you know which book you want or which author you require then an on line library is fine but the ability to browase can hardly be there. And for many who still do not like computers there is no other option. Keep the public libraries .

Major art galleries have recently gone virtual so that you can walk around and inspect paintings at close quarters. Should this not be the future for browsable libraries?

Chris says:
8 February 2011

Public libraries are already a step ahead of you. You can borrow ebooks from some public libraries through their websites. The system is backed by Overdrive who take care of the digital supply chain and is already in place in the UK and the US. Essentially the library, or the local council (in the UK) has to be part of the scheme, but you can then sign-in using your library membership to download ebooks they have in stock. Of course they don’t have everything and stocks are limited. However, knowing how these things work, the more people borrow digitally, the more they will acquire digital licences in place of the printed versions. The DRM is in place through Adobe as will be familiar to EPUB users, so you can with Adobe Digital Editions, download books to any computer. If you want to use an ebook reader, you’ll have to have one compatible with this avenue of lending – and currently that’s the Sony Readers. Overdrive have recently released iOS and Android apps for the service too, so you can also download to mobile devices via that route.

I’ve used the service and it is preferable to buying books, but the limited title selection is a limiting factor. Essentially though, if you buy ebooks and you haven’t looked at what your local library might give you for free (well, funded by your taxes) then you are missing a piece of the puzzle.

I also borrow ebooks from my library and agree with Chris’ comments. It is not, however, a well-publicised service. When I made enquiries at my local library I was informed that ebook lending was not an option. It was only when browsing the Local authority website that I found this was not in fact the case.

I agree – ebook lending could actually help to SAVE libraries, not contribute to their demise. Patrick Steen started a Conversation along these lines a while back – referring to a virtual library scheme in Vancouver: https://conversation.which.co.uk/technology/ebooks-could-find-their-calling-in-the-library/

I prefer reading a physical book to reading on screen – partly the ease of reading and flicking through a book. I have only just seen Kindle which seems monochrome (but no doubt will go colour); so books would be superior for illustrations if this is the case. But for travelling Kindle etc fill a big niche very well, and it is attractive for the thousands of free books available. Libraries will retain a place – many people will not buy Kindle or are not technology orientated – particularly older people or young children, so libraries are their answer. But with spending cuts we may need to accept libraries staffed partly by volunteers and only limited opening days – quite tolerable I would think.

My two local library systems, one a London Borough and the other a County service had around 300 book apiece available for e-reading. Not a huge selection and to be honest you wonder if those who can afford e-readers are benefitting unduly at the expense of more traditional readers.

I have a new Sony reader and at the speed I read novels, two pages a minute, I find the format slows me down. However it is hugely useful in allowing me to access free books no longer in print such as the Wlliamson’s [1904] and original travel and military books back to the Napoleonic era. All this through the Gutenberg org., Also early Wodehouse.

Perhaps libraries would do better to sign up and promote free books rather than pay for and promote new novels. Incidentally physically swopping e-readers around friends and family might avoid the restrictive DRM of commercial e-books.

Sophie Gilbert says:
9 February 2011

Manchester City Council isn’t waiting for the online ebook lending future to close down its libraries.