Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Duke University’s libraries lend printed books to students and faculty members at other institutions all the time via interlibrary loan. But the university’s 900,000 e-books are off limits to anyone beyond the campus.

Robert L. Byrd, Duke’s associate university librarian for collections and user services, would love to lend out those e-books. But he can’t even share them with users at nearby North Carolina Central University, North Carolina State University, or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Because of technical and licensing restrictions, library patrons at those universities—Duke’s partners in the Triangle Research Libraries Network—can see e-books in the library catalog, but they must visit Duke’s campus to read them. "The inability to loan e-books really undermines the services we provide to our users," Mr Byrd says.

Academic libraries have a long, proud tradition of sharing books and journals through interlibrary loan. But as Mr. Byrd can attest, they’ve been stymied in their efforts to extend that practice to e-books, even though libraries are buying more and more content in digital format.

Worried about security and sales, many publishers and vendors permit individual e-book chapters to be shared but don’t routinely include the lending of whole e-books in library contracts. Even when licenses do allow e-book lending, libraries typically lack the technology to make it work. You can’t just pop an e-book into an envelope and ship it off by delivery van or the post office.


But lending e-books may soon get easier. This spring a pilot project called Occam’s Reader will test software custom-built to make it both easy and secure for libraries to share e-book files while keeping publishers happy—or so the software’s creators hope.
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