Andrew Albanese reports on the dispute in the US over HarperCollins decision to limit the lending of ebooks by libraries From research and pilot programmes to digitisation efforts and financial support for a range of vendors, libraries have helped seed the ground for ebooks. But now that the consumer market for ebooks has taken off, are libraries at risk of being marginalised? That is the concern after HarperCollins recently announced that it would limit library ebooks to only 26 lends before the ebook must be repurchased. The policy has met with stiff resistance from libraries since its implementation a month ago, putting libraries and the publisher on a digital collision course with patrons in the middle.
In an open letter to librarians in March, HarperCollins president of sales Josh Marwell asserted that unlimited digital lends of ebooks would undermine the emerging ebook ecosystem, and lead to a decrease in book sales and royalties paid to authors . Librarians, however, aren t buying it no pun intended. Keeping an unofficial running tally, Library Journal reports that dozens of library consortia, representing hundreds of individual libraries, are refusing to buy HarperCollins ebooks. But don t call it a boycott. Rather, the librarians say it is simply a reasoned purchasing decision.
In a note on the Library Journal website at the end of March, Jo Buder, Kansas State librarian, announced a moratorium on HarperCollins ebook titles purchased via the Kansas state library consortium, pointing to a range of questions, including how the library would handle MARC records, and what the policy would mean for patron holds. The lend limit is especially unwelcome, librarians say, considering the great budget stress facing libraries. At a time when libraries are struggling to remain open and staffed, said Roberta Stevens, President of the American Library Association (ALA), this new limitation means that fewer people will have access to an increasingly important format for delivering information.
The uproar over the HarperCollins policy highlights the uneasy reality now facing libraries in the digital age: while print books are purchased, owned and lent subject to copyright law and their physical limits, ebooks are licensed and subject to licence terms or, in some cases, not sold at all. Macmillan and Simon & Schuster are two major American publishers that do not sell ebooks to libraries at present. We are working diligently to try to find terms that satisfy the needs of libraries and protect the value of our intellectual property, Macmillan CEO John Sargent recently explained. When we determine those terms, we will sell ebooks to libraries.
But Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive and of a digitisation initiative called Open Library, says things needn t be so difficult. Kahle rallied librarians in January at the ALA Midwinter Meeting with a strong message: don t let a few powerful corporations take control of your digital future. What libraries do is buy stuff and lend it out, he said at the meeting. He suggested libraries digitise what we have to, and buy what we can , but not allow the promise of managed, licensed access to turn libraries into agents for a few major corporations .
In July 2010 Kahle's Open Library scanning efforts with the Boston Public Library drew questions about whether it would be sued for scanning and lending digital copies of in-copyright books. But Kahle said that after some initial hand-wringing , there had been nary a peep from publishers. We re just doing what libraries do, Kahle said.
He urged more dialogue with publishers, but some librarians wonder how much time they have to talk. As ebooks surge in popularity, librarians say they must offer them or risk being seen as outmoded. One librarian at ALA Midwinter dubbed the recently concluded holiday season the Kindle Christmas , and noted that the millions of Kindle, iPad and other device owners were now descending on the library.
Despite the simmering controversy, ebooks, library advocates stress, also represent an opportunity for publishers. Sarah Rosenblum, a librarian from Hennepin County in Minnesota, said at the ALA meeting that her library system spent $35,000 in 2010 on ebooks. In 2011, they will spend more than $350,000, based on the overwhelming success of their first foray into an ebook service, which was powered by Overdrive, the leading vendor facilitating library ebook lending.
Overdrive, meanwhile, reports that library ebook downloads in 2010 shot up more than 200% from 2009. At a Digital Book World panel in January, Overdrive CEO Steve Potash praised libraries, saying that a book in a library OPAC (Online Public Access Catalogue) was better marketing than some blogger . In fact, Potash said, for all the marketing libraries did for publishers books, publishers should pay them .
On the same panel, Christopher Platt, a librarian at the New York Public Library, urged publishers to come to the table and forge an equitable solution. Current content is king, Platt said, bemoaning the absence of some major publishers and ebook titles from library offerings, such as Keith Richards recent autobiography Life, and Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. You try explaining why to a patron, Platt said. All they know is that the library failed them.
Since this article was written, Amazon has announced a deal with Overdrive to lend library books to Kindle owners.