A New War Between Libraries and Publishers?

A typical public library

I remember when you couldn’t check out library books on your Kindle. But now many libraries have Kindle e-books that their patrons can check out — and it’s creating some brand new controversies. Last month, a special edition of a Bay Area newsweekly examined how tablets like the Kindle are changing our world. And they included a special article about libraries that provided something most articles don’t: actual statistics!

In Alameda County — which includes major cities like Berkeley and Oakland — more than 2,364 e-books were checked out in just one day. (And 50% more e-books were also waiting to be checked out, having been placed on hold.) But then the article analyzes an emerging battle between publishers and libraries over how much to charge for the library’s copy of an e-book — and why the publishers are pushing for new rules. “Unlike e-books, publishers think getting a print book from a library is already enough of a hassle and so it won’t hurt sales at bookstores online,” the reporter notes.

“After all, checking out a library book requires a trip to the library, and usually some scavenger hunting.”

But the reporter makes an interesting observation: e-book sales are still going strong, even though libraries are already offering more library editions of e-books that their patrons can check out for free. Nonetheless, some publishers are pulling their e-books from libraries altogether, or charging the libraries more for a lend-able copy. For a librarian’s perspective, the reporter interviewed Sarah Houghton, the celebrity “Librarian in Black” who’s been blogging about this and other issues in the digital age. (And yes, she does own a Kindle!) “I think public outrage may engender a change in corporate policy — if it’s strong enough,” Houghton argues. “It may take a lawsuit, or legislation, but change will occur.”

Sadly, many libraries have reduced their hours — and digital lending seems to offer an attractive solution. (“Now people can use the library whenever they need to,” one local librarian tells the newsweekly.) And the librarian also believes that small publishers may also benefit from library e-book lending, because it gives new customers an easy way to find their books. That’s especially true if the larger publishers refuse to participate in the libraries’ e-book lending programs.

But the article also raised the possibility that some library patrons may feel left behind. A library in Rockford, Illinois is spending 25% of its book budget on e-books, while one California librarian expects to spend 30% of their budget on e-books in the years to come. Ultimately the article suggests a question which never occurred to me.

Does that mean fewer books will be available for those patrons who can’t afford a digital reader?

One thought on “A New War Between Libraries and Publishers?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *