PUBLIC libraries and e-books should be a perfect match. Libraries want as many readers as possible to have access to as many books as possible whatever their income or location. An e-book, which can be downloaded by any patron for free in their own home, presses all the right buttons.
But what could be an ideal relationship is instead ''messy, difficult, contested, fiendishly complicated'' and ''technically a territory of hell'' says Elizabeth Weiss, an academic and the digital publishing director of Allen & Unwin.
Demand is growing but would-be borrowers are missing out or being subjected to questionable lending terms, while publishers, fearful of piracy and lost sales, look for a way to supply e-books to libraries without going broke.
Libraries object that publishers are charging almost the same for an e-book as they do for a ''p-book'' (that is, a print book, in the new publisher speak). Local authors protest their books are being excluded by restrictive deals between libraries and an American e-book distributor with a virtual monopoly in the library market; they also fear being screwed on royalties. If this was ever a genteel world, it is no longer.
HarperCollins, Penguin and Simon & Schuster are among the publishers refusing to supply their e-book titles to Australian libraries. Allen & Unwin seeks to negotiate terms with e-book suppliers which stop libraries from making a single e-book purchase available over a large geographic area.
Many libraries have signed up with the US global e-book distributor OverDrive, which has secured rights for more than 1 million titles from more than 1000 publishers worldwide.
But the NSW state librarian, Alex Byrne, worries that small libraries servicing low populations cannot afford to deal with OverDrive or its competitors.
In every case, an e-book can be borrowed by only one user at a time, and only for a period of one or two weeks.
Such rules to ration use were necessary when a book was a physical item but are ''just plain silly in the digital world'' Dr Byrne said.
Everyone wanted a solution that allowed predictable costs for libraries and revenues for publishers, but libraries ''don't want to sign up for pay-per-person use and find that use explodes and our budget is ripped to shreds'', he said.
The ''HarperCollins model'', pioneered in the US, limits libraries to lending an e-book 26 times before it expires because ''that was the average amount of loans that a physical book would have [in a library] before it needed to be replaced'', James Kellow, the chief executive officer of HarperCollins Australia and New Zealand, said.
The company in Australia was ''very keen to get a solution in place as soon as possible'', he said. ''The concern is that physical books tire and wear out and get replaced, whereas an e-book never would, so what is the appropriate model to ensure the author gets fair compensation?''
The business development executive of OverDrive in Australia, Peter Haasz, said the ''one-title, one-user model really just mirrors what people have grown used to in the print world''.
If thousands of people could read a single purchased copy all at once, ''that would destroy the business model'', Mr Haasz said.
Another brake on e-book sales to libraries is the difficulty libraries have in managing the complicated multiplicity of e-book formats, devices and licenses.
The collection services co-ordinator of North Sydney's Stanton Library, Louise Barton, is a keen e-reader but the library's e-books supplied by OverDrive are incompatible with her Kindle reader.
''The whole digital thing has completely changed the playing field for libraries,'' Ms Barton said.
Unlike with print books, publishers retain control over digital material, and ''they could withdraw it at any time'', she said.
Nor does she see why e-book prices have to be so high. ''I think they are ripping us off.''