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Library Ebook Lending Under Attack
Posted On April 4, 2011
Libraries are getting the short end of the stick in the ebook market. The options libraries have are poor and our customers are frustrated. There are numerous restrictions on lending, device incompatibilities, proprietary systems, interface issues, privacy issues, and more. How can librarians work with publishers to build a sustainable ebook model that works for libraries? With the world moving increasingly digital, libraries need to find a way to continue to provide services to their constituencies, ensure equitable access to information, and work to develop new electronic content access solutions. There’s a growing rift between librarians and publishers—at the very time we should be sitting down at the table together to work on these issues.

In my column in the March issue of Information Today, I discussed Library Renewal, a grassroots initiative by librarians, legal professionals, and other interested stakeholders to find new solutions. Library Renewal is committed to advocate for solutions with legislators, with users, with the media, with colleagues, and with the private sector, to find a way to renew the value of the library. I also mentioned the announcement of the Berkman Center initiative to plan for a “Digital Public Library of America.”

Since then, the issue of library ebook lending has been thrust into the spotlight and the debate is definitely heating up. It was triggered by HarperCollins’ decision to restrict the lending of ebooks. The message was reluctantly passed along to library customers of OverDrive, a provider of digital books in the library market. The 26-loan limit produced an outcry and irate response, followed by boycotts of Harper Collins titles by librarians. OverDrive then moved HarperCollins ebooks out of its general catalog and into a separate collection.

Josh Marwell, president of sales for HarperCollins, posted “an Open Letter to Librarians” in which he stated that the previous ebook policy would “undermine the emerging ebook eco-system, hurt the growing ebook channel, place additional pressure on physical bookstores, and in the end lead to a decrease in book sales and royalties paid to authors. We are looking to balance the mission and needs of libraries and their patrons with those of authors and booksellers, so that the library channel can thrive alongside the growing ebook retail channel.”

But, many librarians felt angry and undervalued. Don’t publishers understand that libraries are in a unique position to promote and support reading and book buying? One blogger posted: “Publishers would be wise to remember the symbiotic relationship they’ve always shared with libraries who act as promoters and advertisers. Libraries get people hooked on books, and ebooks are going to help libraries do that even more.”

A boycott site was started by several librarians, which provides a sample letter. As librarian Kate Sheehan blogged: “This boycott isn’t designed to punish HarperCollins for trying to come up with a solution, it’s a megaphone for libraries to advocate for ourselves and our members while the ebook world is still fresh and malleable. No one wants to infringe on readers’ rights, least of all librarians. The proposed boycott is an attempt to protect those rights while we still can.”

There is now a growing list of library consortia, organizations, and individual library systems around the country that are joining the boycott and deciding not to purchase HarperCollins ebooks. A recent article in Library Journal provides a helpful summary of some recent actions. There is also a task force that has been formed by the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA) that is debating a response to HarperCollins.

ALA Speaks Out

Reflecting the serious nature of the ebook debate, the American Library Association’s president Roberta Stevens, has spoken out about the “shared alarm at announced and potential limitations to the access to knowledge, information and the creative written works of authors in the electronic era.” She stated, “The marketplace for ebooks is changing rapidly. We encourage publishers to look to libraries as a vehicle to reach and grow diverse audiences.”

Data collected by the ALA shows that libraries are responsive to the needs of their users. Nationwide, 66% of public libraries report offering free access to ebooks to library users—up from 38% 3 years ago.

Two ALA member task forces—the presidential task force on Equitable Access to Electronic Content (EQUACC) and the E-book Task Force—were recently created to address these complex and evolving issues. The Equitable Access to Electronic Information Task Force (EQUACC) met recently in a 2-day retreat and has established a blog and forum to invite commentary on the work of the Task Force and to discuss more generally libraries’ role in providing free and confidential access to econtent for the public.

A Better Approach

Here’s what looks to be a better approach to library lending: The Colorado Independent Publishers Association (CIPA) announced a partnership with two Colorado libraries: the Red Rocks Community College Library and the Douglas County Libraries. By June 2011, the two libraries will not only offer ebooks from CIPA’s authors for checkout through their library catalogs, but will also allow click-through purchases of these titles.

And the Conversations Continue…

Equitable access to information and ebooks will be the subject of the first virtual ALA Membership Meeting, scheduled for June 1.

Public and school librarians from around the world will come together with publishing industry leaders at OverDrive’s third international user group conference, Digipalooza, July 28-31, 2011, in Cleveland. Held every 2 years, this 4-day educational and networking conference will address the massive surge in library ebook borrowing with panels on industry trends, best practices, marketing and outreach, and upcoming enhancements to the OverDrive service. A roundtable featuring representatives from several leading publishing houses will provide librarians with the chance to ask questions, in-person, about the future of library ebook lending.

While some might say that our library organizations are coming late to the ebook party, the bottom line is that all stakeholders must join together now in crafting 21st century solutions that will ensure equitable access to information for all.

For More Reading

Bobbi Newman, at Librarian by Day, has put together a collection of links to what librarians have written about this issue.

Further Reading from EQUACC: An excellent compilation of links for key topics: first sale doctrine, copyright, and legal issues; evolution of library relationships; formats; publishing and library data; and more.

Slide presentation by Ned Potter

Sarah-Houghton-Jan and Andy Woodworth have started the call for “The eBook User’s Bill of Rights.”

“Ebooks and Libraries,” by Irene E. McDermott, Searcher, March 2011, p. 7-.

E-Book Lending: The Serpent in the Garden of Eden,” by Bill Rosenblatt, Copyright and Technology.

Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.

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Comments Add A Comment
Posted By David Rothmam4/5/2011 2:25:10 PM

Hi, Paula. Many thanks for your coverage of these issues! I wish HarperCollins would stop the PR and simply do the right thing.

Another resource for people interested in e-books and libraries---and the national digital library debate---is We have a page devoted to various writings elsewhere, including my recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the need for a system for both the elite and nonelite:

My current personal thinking is that there actually should be two separate systems for academic libs and publibs:

You might want to write a feature or column on this matter of dealing with differences between the two categories. I've tried to come up with helpful specifics fair to both sides.

Meanwhile the DPLA would do well to drop P since it unwittingly undermines the franchise and branding of genuine public libraries. The Wikipedia page for "Public Library" describes publibs as now perceived. I want a National Digital Library system with true public governance, etc. (although I can see a sharing of infrastructure resources and some content with a Scholarly Library of America that might use a different business model).


David Rothman, Co-Founder, | 703.370.6540

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