Why E-Book Access Matters

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As digital technologies become more integrated into how people learn, work and interact, ensuring equal access to e-books is more important than ever.

And yet, major publishers have changed the rules on e-book access for public libraries through highly restrictive new pricing and lending practices. Notably, Macmillan Publishers launched a new policy this month that only allows libraries to purchase a single copy of e-books for the first eight weeks after they are published.

Mayors from large urban centers across the country are speaking up against the harmful impact of these restrictions on their communities and the people who depend the most on public libraries.

“If libraries are priced out of meeting the e-book needs of our residents, the digital divide will widen in our city,” said Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern. “We must speak up against barriers to equitable e-book access and ensure libraries remain ‘free to all.”

McGovern is one of 80 mayors and county leaders in the U.S. and Canada who have signed onto a statement calling on e-content publishers to “institute fair, transparent and flexible lending models for public libraries.” The Statement on Equitable Public Access to E-Books was developed by the Urban Libraries Council, a research institution and innovations network of over 150 leading North American public libraries, and the Canadian Urban Libraries Council.

E-content is one of the fastest growing areas of borrowing for public libraries, increasing by 30 percent each year. Just like print books, libraries lend e-books on a one-copy-per-reader basis and maintain wait lists for the most popular titles. However, unlike print books, public library prices for e-books can be three-to-five times higher than what a consumer would pay.

For example, an e-book copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments is available to individuals for about $15, but libraries have to pay $55, according to data provided by Nashville Public Library. And, the library’s license expires after two years.

The new restrictions on e-book access are compounding the challenges for libraries caused by this pricing disparity. For library systems in large cities, Macmillan Publisher’s embargo could force readers to wait a year or more to borrow a popular title in e-book format. These increased barriers for libraries will intensify systemic divides in cities of all sizes; the people who will be hurt most are those who already face unfair hurdles to accessing digital learning resources, including children, low-income families and people living with disabilities.

Multinational publishers are price-gouging taxpayers and widening the gaps between the haves and have-nots in communities of all sizes with their restrictive licenses and excessively high prices. By signing this statement, North America’s mayors and county executives are making it clear that they will not stand for the extreme restrictions e-book publishers are placing on public libraries, which jeopardize their essential role as engines for democracy.

Susan 9About the Author: Susan Benton is the President and CEO of the Urban Libraries Council, an innovation and impact tank of North America’s leading public library systems. For over 30 years, her professional career has been dedicated to assisting city and county executives initiate and manage change in their organizations so that citizens and businesses are receiving the strongest possible services.