Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Library e-lending: does it have a future?

One of the issues that has developed with the increased popularity of ebooks is how digital titles will be sold to and distributed by libraries. For hundreds of years, libraries have been a staple of the democratic principle that everyone should have access to the resources necessary to learn and thereby better themselves, regardless of personal wealth or social status.


With the transition from print to digital media fully underway, however, publishers have seemingly abandoned this ideal by restricting libraries’ access to their digital titles.

And now our libraries are responding en masse. This past week, at the American Library Association’s (ALA) Midwinter Meeting in Dallas, ALA Executive Director, Keith Fiels, had much to say about what libraries plan to do to combat this restrictive practice.

The next time you have a few minutes, I urge you to read the entire dialogue of the interview with Fiels conducted by Publishers Weekly at the meeting on January 24. In summary, Fiels said that meetings have been arranged as early as this week between the ALA and major publishers like Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin (the latter of which, you may remember, suddenly pulled their ebook titles from OverDrive just a couple of months ago, to the anger and dismay of readers and libraries).

Fiels acknowledged that though talks have taken place between libraries and publishers in the past, they have not always been successful. But libraries are no longer asking: they’re demanding change. Fiels was quick to point out the distinction between past talks and upcoming ones, as he said, “‘when we talk about having a dialogue, it is, ‘Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, you need to start making ebooks available to libraries. Now, let’s have a dialogue.'”

When asked just how he planned to convince publishers that have repeatedly refused to offer library access to all their digital titles, Fiels responded:

‘I think it is very important to realize that we are not too far from the point where the media is going to figure out that this is an issue. Now, we’re very much eager to do anything we can to facilitate publishers making works available to libraries. But if you want to talk about freedom of access, for a major publisher to make a decision that they will not sell their works to a particular group of individuals, to me, that raises some serious issues. I’m not going to go further than that, other than to say we really need to get this resolved because we don’t want this to be an embarrassment to anyone.’

I don’t know about you, but the subversive tone underpinning this response left me grinning at my computer screen. Finally someone is fighting back for the little guy.

That grin quickly vanished when I read some of the reader comments at the end of the article. One commenter, Larry Moniz, pointed out “this article is a tad disingenuous as it’s really about large public libraries and library consortiums (those that have money to pay royalties on such loans)…I’ve spoken to small local libraries [that] say they can’t afford to take part in ebook loaning because they have to pay a fee to the online company loaning the books out, for each book, each time it is loaned, including Amazon’s Kindle.”

Moniz’s point is an important one: if the ALA is fighting for library access to digital works, but libraries themselves can’t manage the distribution of these titles—or can’t afford to pay a third party such as OverDrive to do it for them—who’s the winner here? Many libraries can barely afford to sustain their print collections. If they’re unable to keep up with the growing demand for ebooks, how will they survive?

Despite my initial glee, I’m pretty disheartened that the work the ALA is doing to secure library access to ebooks could be for naught. Perhaps the ALA should consider what most libraries will (or won’t) be able to do with the access they are vying for, and start thinking about a democratic solution to actually take advantage of it.


This entry was posted on February 2, 2012 by in Business, Technology and tagged , .

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