Why Is It So Hard to Use E-books from the Library?

I would dearly love to say that e-books from the public library are wondrous things. Come to think of it, I did make that case in my post, Why Public Libraries Are Better than Amazon.

However, recently I had occasion to despair of the library e-book experience when I tried to check out Robin Hastings' book — Making the Most of the Cloud: How to Choose and Implement the Best Services for Your Library — from my local library.

My Sad Patron Story

E-book lending has been going on for some years now, and I thought surely the bugs would be worked out since the days of David Lee King's Library eBooks Can Be Frustrating! But in a recent attempt, I found that borrowing an e-book still involves a ridiculous number of steps.

In this case, I checked the e-book out on my MacBook laptop. Here's what happened next:

  1. I went through the check-out process on the library website. Not so bad.
  2. Then I had to update my account on Overdrive. No problem.
  3. I downloaded the book, which was a two-step process. I figured it out.
  4. Then I found I needed proprietary eBook software. That was a little harder to figure out. I needed something called an ePub version.
  5. I then had to figure out what that is. YouTube to the rescue!
  6. I downloaded the app, and then had to figure out how to add the downloaded book to my app library.
  7. After viewing another YouTube video on that part, I figured it out and clicked on the book (now in my ePub library), and the software crashed.
  8. I then spent a bunch of time researching why the software wouldn't work and flamed out after about an hour.
  9. I took a break and then, undaunted, I made another run at it and went on to the library website to return the eBook in hopes of trying it on another device.
  10. It informed me that I had to return the book from a device that I don't have.

That's when I decided to look deeper into this. OK. I'm a reasonably digitally literate fellow. I'm a frequent library patron and a spirited library advocate. So what's wrong? Is it just me?

E-books and the Future of Libraries

When I looked at the latest Library Journal findings on eBook Usage in U.S. Public Libraries, I found that it isn't just me that has had trouble. E-books in libraries are a big deal and are also a mess.

  • In 2014, 95 percent of libraries indicated that they offer e-books to users.
  • The median number of e-books that libraries offer exceeds 10,000 titles, an increase of nearly 1,200 percent since 2010.
  • Demand for e-books peaked in 2012, and since then has tapered off. Demand remains high, however.
  • The most serious hindrances to the public's use of e-books are now basic lack of awareness and ease of use.
  • Forty-two percent of public librarians hear patrons voice the concern, "I need help downloading e-books to my device" on a daily basis. There is a definite need for a more streamlined user experience, particularly one that respects patron privacy.

Of course the patron experience is an important piece, but wait — there's more.

Librarians against DRM

E-books and e-readers are expensive. While libraries are obliged to keep up robust print collections plus popular items like DVD movies and public access computing, two-thirds of libraries have reallocated their budgets to pay for e-books, mostly at the expense of reference materials.

The Library Journal survey finds that one-third of U.S. libraries have e-readers on hand for patrons' use, another expense.

There are too many e-reader devices. You can get multiple versions of the Amazon Kindle (nine to date), Barnes & Noble Nook, Kobo Aura, and several others like BeBook, ECO Reader, IREX, PRS Reader, and so on. Find a big list of them here.

There are a variety of platforms and apps that complicate the e-book field. You can find several Android ones, and many iOS e-reader apps for Apple devices. E-book platforms include: Overdrive, Apple iBook, ePub, ebrary, Mobipocket, Kindle, Nook, PDF, and so forth. ALA's E-book Platforms for Libraries is a compendium of the 51 primary e-book vendors and platforms.

DRM (digital rights management) restrictions are perhaps the biggest problem. E-book copyright or DRM restrictions seem to be the primary culprit for the expense and difficulty of e-book lending, according to places like Digital Trends. DRM software controls e-book uses like downloading, copying, modifying the text, amount of text that can be viewed, transferring e-books from one device to another, and limitations on how many times an e-book can be lent. One could say that DRM restrictions have a stranglehold on this field.

Is There Any Relief from the DRM Stranglehold?

A few years ago (2011 and 2012), there was some grassroots library activism about getting rid of DRM restrictions. That seems to have died down. The arena for this seems to have gone to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). It has convened international talks to create copyright exceptions for developing countries and also libraries and schools.

The bad news is that WIPO delegates from the United States and Europe are opposing DRM exceptions. The good news is that they may settle on a compromise to make exceptions for libraries and archives. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been covering this issue.

Why is it so hard to use e-books from my library? The difficult patron experience is only part of the story.

How do you help patrons with e-book difficulties? Share your tips with us in the comments.

More Resources

Image 1: goXunuReviews / CC BY

Image 2: listentomyvoice / CC BY-SA




I don't find it to difficult to use library e-books. Granted, I am what might be considered a digital native but with the advent of smartphones and tablets, the process for accessing e-books has become rather simple. In the days of sideloading e-books via Adobe Digital Editions desktop app, yes, accessing library e-books was a bit of a pain. However, I find that once I teach most patrons how to download the OverDrive app and then download e-books via the OverDrive app, they're pretty set. Most of my patrons have iPads, Kindle Fires or some other type mobile device. Even for patrons who have the Kindle Paperwhite, the process is not too bad. I show them how to access the library's OverDrive page and then I show them how to go into their Amazon account to send the book to their Kindles. It involves a few more steps but my patrons do not seem to find this cumbersome. I think the main issue is just knowing what to do. That is an area that libraries can improve on. There are libraries that have been produced excellent YouTube videos on how to access e-Books. Our library provides very colorful cheat sheet with step by step instructions for various devices. However, we will always have patrons who want and/or need face-to-face assistance on this issue.

I do oppose DRM but I think that is another issue and does not relate to difficulties accessing library e-books.