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A lot of attention has been paid to the way bookstores and publishing companies are managing the e-book revolution. But far less has been paid to the role of libraries. When Harper Collins recently announced that it would limit the number of times its e-books can be borrowed, it sparked a larger conversation about the future of libraries in the digital age.

NPR's Lynn Neary has the story.

LYNN NEARY: You don't have to go anywhere near a library to check out an e-book. You can download it onto your digital device in a matter of seconds. And there's no more pesky overdue notices. The e-book simply disappears from your device when your time is up.

Mr. ELI NEIBURGER (Director for IT and Production, Ann Arbor District Library): The fact is that with a digital item, if you give it to somebody, you still have it. It doesn't have to come back.

NEARY: Eli Neiburger is the director for IT and production at the Ann Arbor District Library in Michigan.

E-books, says Neiburger, are really digital files. But libraries and publishers are still trying to deal with them as if they're just like print books. And they're trying to do business the way they have always done business.

Mr. NEIBURGER: Part of the models that we've seen so far are still trying to force 20th century business models onto digital content. And any digital native says: What, you mean I have to wait to download an e-book? What sense does that make? And they're off to the Kindle store to spend - what, you know, 3.99 or 4.99 or 9.99 to get that same book.

NEARY: In the current climate, libraries worry they'll become obsolete. Publishers are afraid they won't be able to make any money. That's why Harper Collins came up with a new e-book policy, which says its e-books can only be checked out 26 times before they have to be re-purchased. Leslie Hulse, a senior vice president at Harper Collins, says publishers have to place some limitations on the way libraries loan e-books.

Ms. LESLIE HULSE (Senior Vice President, Harper Collins): So I think the tension is, at the extreme, we could be making a book available to one national library on a simultaneous access model, in perpetuity. And what that would mean is that everyone in the country could check out that book for free at any time. And that's not a - sort of a commercially viable solution.

NEARY: Harper Collins may have raised the ire of librarians around the country with their new e-book policy. But Christopher Platt, director of collections and circulation at the New York Public Library, says the move has also stimulated a lot more public discussion about the future of libraries and e-books.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER PLATT (Director of Collections and circulation, New York Public Library): The Harper Collins limit of 26 checkouts per item isn't going to stick. It's going to develop into something new. And Harper, to their credit, is very engaged with libraries, and reaching out to them now to see, really, what would work.

NEARY: Platt has his own ideas about what might work for the future. He says libraries use intermediaries to manage both their physical and digital book collections. He thinks libraries could work with these intermediaries to develop subscription packages of e-books. Libraries would pay the publishers for these subscriptions, and use them as they see fit.

Mr. PLATT: So I'd buy a title with a thousand uses, right? And then it's up to us and our readers - the library readers - whether those a thousand uses get used simultaneously in the first few days, or whether they're drawn out over time. And then if they do get used very quickly, we'll buy more.

NEARY: Eli Neiburger has a more radical idea. He thinks libraries could deal directly with content providers.

Mr. NEIBURGER: The goal of the library is to obtain the ability to distribute content to its public. And if we can do that easier and more cheaply with the rights-holder or the artist themselves, and they make more money on it - you know, it may be heretical but you know, the future usually is.

NEARY: That idea has potential, says Christopher Platt, but it may not be practical in the long run.

Mr. PLATT: In some scenarios, that will happen, and that will grow. You will see more original content coming into library collections, going forward. And I think that's a wonderful thing, especially if libraries play a role in the creation of that content. But on a regular matter of just ordering, at scale, the number of e-books that we add to our collection, that's a very difficult thing to manage.

NEARY: From the traditional to the visionary, the conversation about libraries in the digital age has begun in earnest. Roberta Stevens, president of the American Library Association, wants more publishing companies to get involved in the conversation because at the moment, some publishers aren't even willing to sell e-books to libraries.

Libraries may be able to survive without those books now, says Stevens. But in the future, a lot of books will only be available electronically.

Mr. ROBERTA STEVENS (President, American Library Association): When we look at the future, then we have to really think very seriously about what is our role. And how can we actually serve the millions and millions of people who use our public libraries every day if we can't even get access to titles?

NEARY: Libraries have always been thought of as a kind of temple of books; a place you can go to for peace and quiet, a place to read and think. They're an intricate part of the fabric that pulls a community together. But if they are to be relevant in the future, they'll have to make space for themselves in the digital community as well.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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