It isn’t because libraries can’t figure out, technically, how to loan out ebooks. It’s because publishers don’t want them to, and may be able to prevent it.
A shift to ebooks has been predicted for a while, and seems to be happening. I’ve talked to many people who wonder why their public libraries don’t offer more ebooks they can download on their e-reader of choice, assuming it’s because the public libraries don’t want to, or are not technically competent to. The first is, i think, definitely no longer true — libraries want to. The second, technical competence, may be a barrier, but it’s not the prime one.
The prime barrier is that publishers by and large don’t want libraries to. I don’t think most library patrons realize the threat to libraries here — I think it’s high-time library organizations like the ALA start educating them. Most people like public libraries and want them to continue; a public that realizes they may be threatened will be more likely to support policy to make them do so, and that’s what’s needed.
With a print book, a library can buy a book and loan it to as many borrowers as they like, without any permission from the publisher at all. In the US, the right to do this is protected by the first sale doctrine.
That does not apply to ebooks. I do not have the right to buy an ebook and loan it out again. I need the publisher’s permission — I may also need enabling technology to make it possible, vs Digital Rights Management that actively seeks to prevent it (and the DMCA which makes it illegal to violate that DRM technology). A publisher can charge dearly for that permission, or withhold it entirely. With a print book, a publisher might still be worried that being able to borrow for free from a library can hurt sales — but they can’t do anything about it. With an ebook, they can do something about it, the balance of powers has shifted tectonically in favor of publishers.
Here’s a recent new york times article about this battle between publishers and libraries: Publishers vs. Libraries: An E-Book Tug of War
Here’s an account by Patrick Berry of California State University Chico on the difficulties in running a kindle lending program. Patrick investigates the feasibility of loaning out actual physical kindles loaded with titles purchased by the library — this used to be somewhat feasible, but recently Amazon made technical changes that require a purchased title to be registered to a particular kindle device when purchased, and only readable on that device. Actually, to be fair, Amazon allows up to six devices to be registered for a title. But if a library wants to purchase more than six physical kindle devices, then a given title they purchase they can only load on six of them, unless they buy multiple copies. Note that this isn’t only six at once , it’s only six specific physical devices, pretty much ever.
What if you instead of loaning out actual physical kindles, a library wanted to loan out kindle titles for patrons to load on their own kindles? Well, that same restriction makes it impossible for a library to simply buy the book normally at a normal rate and loan it out themselves directly to patrons (as libraries do with print books). Now, you may have heard that Amazon recently announced a program with Overdrive to support library lending. The details of this program are vague and don’t seem available on the open internet. It seems likely to me that not every title available for kindle is in the Overdrive library program, probably only titles that publishers opted in to. (Compare to ordinary print books, where a library can buy any book at all and lend it out). Likewise, it seems likely that libraries pay more over the lifetime of use for a kindle Overdrive title than they would for a print title. I don’t know what the library pricing model is here, and would be very very curious if anyone does — does a library pay an up front ‘purchase’ fee, is it more than the usual kindle purchase fee? Does the library pay a per-checkout fee as well? (something a library does not do with a print book, and there’d be no way for a publisher to require it).
Libraries can offer ebooks, unlike print books, only at the sufferance of publishers, and publishers may charge whatever they like for this ‘privilege’. Publishers, not liking the idea of libraries much, are not providing that permission in some cases, and are providing pricing models in other cases which make it much more expensive for a library to offer an ebook than a print book. If reader preferences continue to shift to ebooks as we expect, we may very well see the end of libraries as book lending institutions. (That’s of course not all a library does, and they may continue in other roles). Not because patrons don’t want to borrow ebooks from a library same as they did print ebooks, not because libraries don’t want to loan ebooks or can’t figure out the technology, but because publishers simply don’t want it to happen, and our laws give them the right to prevent it.