Digital technology is having difficulty getting up and running at public lending libraries. This is because the catalogue is generally skimpy and there is neither a clear legal framework for borrowing digital works nor an established business model for publishers.

"Acquiring a book in digital format is all about right of use"

Joint interview with Nicolas Gary, Head of publication at, a French online window on the publishing world, and Benoît Epron, Head of Research at ENSSIB, the French National School of Information Science and Librarianship. L’Atelier spoke to them on the sidelines of the recording of a ‘L’Atelier numérique’ (L’Atelier Digital) TV broadcast.

Have traditional libraries now passed a turning point as regards digital?

Benoît Epron: I’m not sure that we can really talk about a turning point. I would rather describe it as a continuum in which libraries have been getting to grips with incorporating digital technology at various levels over the last few years.

Rather than a turning point, I would say that the library is evolving with its readers, adapting to the reading habits of its members.

Is it feasible to shift to all-digital?

Benoît Epron: I don’t think we ought to see things in terms of replacing the current situation with another, future situation. Today the world of books has its paper side, its analogue approach and its digital practices. The modern lending library meets this diverse range of habits quite well, offering both traditional paper-based reading material and digital format content for what is now a growing digital readership.

Nicolas Gary: Lending out e-book readers to library members is an excellent initiative. This works especially well with senior citizens, who can no longer manage to read the rather small print of paperback formats. Offering them this type of equipment helps to keep them in touch with books.

What about the publishers? Has the awaited marriage between libraries, publishers and digital been consummated yet?

Nicolas Gary: Well, you know, when there are three people in a marriage it’s sure to go badly for one of them. The job of a librarian is to recommend books to read, to guide people to discover works they don’t yet know, but when it comes to works in digital format this role is more or less non-existent. There’s no catalogue, no service, no offering. These days we have at a public library perhaps 1,000 comic books in digital format and a catalogue of several thousand novels, a large proportion of which are already in the public domain. If the job is to help readers find new works, well that’s quite simply impossible in the digital domain.

Benoît Epron: The problem facing lending libraries today is to how to acquire e-books before it can even think about making them available to its readers.

Why is that?

Benoît Epron: Well you don’t acquire a digital book in the same way that you acquire a book in paper format. Acquiring a book in digital format is all about right of use. Every publishing company has its own approach and its own terms and conditions. But it’s difficult for a library to explain to its members that the book is only available to read right here, or remotely, via streaming or only in downloaded form. Today the right to borrow a book in paper format is set out in a clear legal framework, through specific legislation, while borrowing an e-book comes under the commercial contract between the library and the publisher.

In that case we really do need Digital Rights Management, then?

Nicolas Gary: Well, this is perhaps the first time ever that DRM will actually make sense. We could, for example offer DRM-protected chronodegradable eBooks – i.e. the digital text disappears after a defined period of time. But there’s still the question of the business model. Books in paper format become worn with use, whereas those in digital format don’t. Publishers these days are rather schizophrenic on this issue, always saying they’re worried about their business model. With a paper format book, it isn’t the publisher who deals directly with the library, it’s the bookseller. When the book is sold, the publisher and the author get a cut. This process is well-oiled, very smooth. But when it comes to digital this process simply doesn’t exist. And if publishing houses don’t know how they’re going to get paid, or how they can reward the authors, then they would simply prefer not to bother with such a setup.  

What about the librarian? Doesn’t all this spell the end of his/her job? If tomorrow there were a local municipal iTunes which allowed everyone to download anything they wanted, there would no longer be any need to go to a bricks-and-mortar library.

Nicolas Gary: I could quote you some research from the United States here giving clear examples of people who frequent libraries when they could just as easily borrow e-books from home. Why go over to the library? Simply because at the end of the day there is this recommendation culture, the same way you go to a bookshop to get ideas, new offers and suggestions.



By Lila Meghraoua
Journaliste/Productrice radio