Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Can Church Libraries Cross the Digital Divide?

The topic of eBooks for church libraries remains a hot one. My previous posts on the topic are the most-read of all my posts here. That tells me that church librarians are interested in finding out more about circulating eBooks and if it can be done.  No doubt library users are asking too.

However, I think there are several reasons why most church libraries are not going to jump on the eBook bandwagon (or is monorail a more high-tech metaphor?) very soon.

There's a good discussion at the Church Librarians' Network that is helpful to understand some of the issues involved. Although there's plenty of interest among church librarians; cost, control and selection are all cited as factors that make an eLibrary difficult to implement for most churches.

In any discussion of eBooks, it's important to remember that vendors like Overdrive (for libraries) or Amazon (for individuals) control what users can do with their products. For an annual fee Overdrive leases a collection of titles to a library. So, instead of growing their collection by buying and adding new paper books every year, a library pays an annual annual fee to rent eBooks.  The titles in the collection can change from year to year based on what the provider offers and what titles the library wants to add or drop.

Publishers reason that because an eBook can be circulated endlessly without showing any wear and tear the price should include some equivalent for what libraries pay in purchasing replacement copies.  Public libraries have argued that most best-sellers have a best-before date, and that there's no reason to maintain multiple copies once the initial interest in a 'hot'  title has cooled.

Apart from the unique model of collection development, (which has some merit: a lot of  popular Christian publications are ephemeral and could be discarded after their popularity wanes) cost is the biggest obstacle most church libraries face in circulating eBooks. From the Church Librarians' Network discussion we learn that the actual costs ( in 2011) for access to 700 items available from Overdrive were:
...based on tiers of church enrollment... Here are some of the tiers Overdrive has proposed:
           0 to 1000 members: $ 750/yr
           1001 to 3000 members: $1500/yr
           3001 to 6000 members: $3000/yr
           6001 to 10000 members: $4500/yr
If your church is at the top level of those tiers, that works out to less than a dollar per person per year to join Overdrive and start circulating eBooks, but if you are at the lower end of the tier it's a bit more.  Conversely, cost-per-title is great for small churches (about a dollar per title)  but increases by six-fold  for a mega church. Large churches would probably need more copies to meet demand while those in small churches would have a veritable plethora of choices.

Now,  bear in mind that most churches in North America (some 94%) have fewer than 500 in attendance per week and nearly 60% of all churches have under 100 weekly participants.  That's why six congregational libraries in Texas formed a consortium to mange costs. Other regional groups, denominations, synods could do the same if there is leadership and willing consent to make it work.  For the majority of small, single congregations however, that $750 could attract plenty of attention at a church budget meeting unless the entire congregation was made up of savvy eBook users ready to support their library.

Even for public libraries, publishers' pricing structures and access are one of the the biggest negative factor in providing eBooks. The American Library Association writes:

Did you know that many ebooks are not available to most libraries at any price? Of those we can buy, libraries frequently pay 150 to 500% more than the consumer price, forcing us to purchase fewer copies for library readers to discover. As more books appear only in electronic form, the situation will become intolerable for our nation’s readers.

And a librarian, writing in Wired provides some details:
Sadly, pricing changes the game for library access altogether because ebook distributors have radically changed the pricing from that of regular books.
Take the example of J.K. Rowling’s pseudonymous book, Cuckoo’s Calling. For the physical book, libraries would pay $14.40 from book distributor Baker & Taylor — close to the consumer price of $15.49 from Barnes & Noble and of $15.19 from Amazon. But even though the ebook will cost consumers $6.50 on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, libraries would pay $78 (through library ebook distributors Overdrive and 3M) for the same thing.
The linked PDF in the quote above shows that while not every eBook is priced 5 times more than a print edition, a public library would pay Overdrive (one of the leading suppliers of eBooks to libraries) some $760 for the list of bestsellers, while an individual could buy those same titles for just over $125 from Amazon - and Amazon offered eBook editions for all 30 of the New York Times bestseller items compared to just 17 that Overdrive made available to the public library.

On a bleaker note some very prescient postings by LibraryThing guru Tim Spalding sets out what is at stake for small libraries and he concludes: ebooks will kill the smallest libraries.  

No one is predicting the end of reading, nor the end of study using books (whatever the format.)  We do know that readers want to talk about what they read and the church library has long been a place to get the conversation started.  Christian education remains a vital part of the the church's purpose.  Therefore, it seems that for church libraries to become eLibraries, church library users will have to provide strong (financial) support and church library staff will have to supply strong leadership in navigating a new dimension..  That change, if implemented,  will fundamentally change the nature of the church library and the role of the church librarian - maybe the space will  look more like Granger Commons then a book-lined room and, instead of bibliophiles and organization mavens, it will be staffed by techies and facilitators.

What do you think?  Use the comment box below to share your experience.


  1. Unfortunately, those Overdrive tier quotes are way off now. I received a quote from Overdrive for my 900 member church last week: $4,000 per year. $2,000 for the web services and support, $2,000 minimum in new title/copy leases per year. That gets us about 120 ebook and audiobook title/copy acquisitions per year.

    That tier you've quoted was an initial quote for a TX church library consortium (with a total consortium start-up cost of $20,000), not for individual churches. The quote is out of context for solo churches and other "groupings" of libraries.

    I plan to do a blog post next week about my full conversation and investigation for solo churches. Just haven't had the time this week...

    Colleen Greene, MLIS
    Rose Drive Friends Church Library
    President, Southern California Chapter, Evangelical Church Library Association

  2. Colleen has published a comprehensive account of her experience "Investigating Overdrive Ebooks & Audiobooks for a Church Library" at


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