The numbers had been growing for a few years but not a single librarian could have imagined that within just a few months digital book loans would seen this huge increase in sales. Since last March, ebooks and audiobooks have become the preferred reading format to borrow from libraries. We could blame or credit new habits that have been defined by the global pandemic. On top of the growing demand from active users during the lockdown, we’ve seen an equally increasing number of new subscribers that have discovered access to well-stocked, multi-format catalogues in a secure and straightforward way.

Here some numbers

Let's briefly go back to numbers. These figures were published by OverDrive, one of the world’s leading digital loan management platforms. Even if we already talked about it in our last newsletter – here’s the link if you’d like to subscribe – it’s worth a reminder. Last year, ebook downloads grew by 30%, going from 366 million in 2019 to 430 million in 2020. Audiobooks have registered a growth of 20% compared to last year (138 million checkouts); ebooks' percentage of growth doubled in 2020 with 289 million total downloads (+40%) compared to 2019. The numbers on the waiting list are also very high: 138 million. OverDrive covers 87 countries worldwide with 65.000 libraries and schools that use its service.

In Italy, the data released by MLOL, the first Italian network of public, academic, and school libraries, show an exponential growth compared to 2019: new subscribers grew by 89.09%, the use of resources by 102.56%, and access by 107.68%. The lockdown has inevitably impacted this growth, and it's important to remember that a number of restraining factors are still having an influence on the figures related to digital loans around the world. Some of these factors are related to the libraries' internal processes of digitization - registration online is not always available and there are deficiencies in the training of digital librarians. However, other factors are closely related to some limitations set forth by publishers on the lending of digital content, which affects both the maximum number of loans allowed and the availability of some titles.

What's changing?

It’s not only new subscribers that have increased during recent months, we’ve also seen an increase in the number of titles available too. After years of hesitation, awareness for the growing demand for digital content both in retail and libraries, has finally seen several publishers and important publishing groups make significant steps towards digital libraries.

The terms for digital loans were eased and hundreds of ebooks and audiobooks from some of the world’s greatest publishers were provided - including Macmillan, HarperCollins, and Penguin Random House. And even more surprisingly, there is news that Amazon has started negotiations that will make its titles available for public loan.

While paper-back book loans plummeted due to the closure of physical spaces and the limitations imposed by new prevention rules, those of digital content continued, and continue to register truly important numbers. In response to the growing demand for digital content and the increase in active users, many libraries have allocated a larger share of their budget to the purchase of ebooks and audiobooks, and have encountered a greater openness from publishers who were particularly interested in ensuring the enjoyment of the pay to loan model. The pay to loan system, unlike the one-copy one-user model, allows users to fully exploit the digital medium and provides the possibility to freely download all available titles in a collection, without any limitation in the number of readers at one time - hence without a booking code. In fact, libraries buy loan packages from publishers, paying according to the number of loans made. The advantages are obvious and not only for subscribers; publishers are starting to grasp the new role played by digital libraries and in publishing distribution.

In our previous article dedicated to the sales models of the new publishing market, we talked about libraries and the benefits that independent publishers and authors could enjoy from the growth of digital lending. Greater spread, greater visibility, greater earnings. Without forgetting the main function of library content loans which is to guarantee access to content to those who can't afford or have no way to access the title, due to a number of various obstacles.

Is this only a temporary response to the current world situation or a solid basis for a lasting change? Will publishers and librarians take advantage of their experience of the extraordinary year of 2020 to finally chart a new, sustainable course for ebooks and digital content in libraries? The dizzying growth of numbers recorded in recent months will inevitably slow but the feeling, and the widespread hope, is that the current prominence of ebooks and audiobooks in libraries can launch a new era of the library sector and market. Users around the world seem to greatly appreciate easy access to an increasingly rich and diverse catalogue of both content and formats and will likely retain these new habits.

We'll wait for the upcoming issues to learn more.

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