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Library struggles to stock ebooks are a symptom of a fearful publishing industry

Library struggles to stock ebooks are a symptom of a fearful publishing industry

Posting in Education

Fear of piracy has led book publishers to place restrictions on library copies of ebooks, from what titles they can own to the total number of times an ebook can be borrowed. Can this really be the future of libraries?

The last time I borrowed a book from the library, I never set foot in the door. I got an email notification that my book was available, logged onto the Brooklyn Public Library website, and downloaded it straight onto my ebook reader. But I paid a price for the convenience: fewer rental days, no renewals, and a wait time of 6 weeks to get the book in the first place.

Waiting on a line of 86 holds to download an ebook file, which would seem to be an unlimited good, seems a bit ludicrous. But it's just one of the ways book publishers are trying to maintain control of the book titles they peddle, causing frustration for libraries. In yesterday's Washington Post, staff writer Christian Davenport reported that ebook borrows across the US are skyrocketing and libraries are struggling to keep up with the demand.

Frustration is building on all sides: among borrowers who can’t get what they want when they want it; among librarians trying to stock their virtual shelves and working with limited budgets and little cooperation from some publishers; and among publishers who are fearful of piracy and wading into a digital future that could further destabilize their industry. In many cases, the publishers are limiting the number of e-books made available to libraries.

Some publishers, such as Simon and Schuster, Penguin, and Macmillan, the WP reports, are not releasing their new titles or any titles for library borrowing. Additionally, publishers are requiring libraries to re-purchase ebooks after a certain number of checkouts. The requirement tries to replicate profits made from physical book checkout, as hard copies wear out and fall apart over time, forcing libraries to buy fresh replacement copies.

Can this really be the future of libraries? Public libraries exist to provide equal access to information and education, and many of the systems therein such as holds and fines were set up because physical books are a limited commodity. But digital books are not limited in the same way; nonetheless, publishers are trying to force ebooks into the same model as physical books.

This practice does not seem sustainable. First of all, we've seen another industry try to peddle digital media in the same way as physical content -- the music industry -- and that doesn't seem to have worked out so well. Second, if libraries exist to provide information and are funded by the public, why should the book industry make the rules?

On the other hand, who can blame them? Stripping the files of their digital rights management, which prevents the ebooks from being copied and shared without limit, can't be too difficult. Selling the files to a library could essentially be seen as a free handout of the titles with no profit for the publishers.

Digital media may simply require a new model. Will it work like Netflix, with publishers licensing their entire collections to the government for an annual payment in exchange for unlimited borrowing? Or will the industry rupture as unlocked ebooks spread, hailing the end of large presses?

Photo: Moyan Brenn/Flickr

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Hannah Waters

Weekend Editor

Weekend Editor Hannah Waters is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She writes a blog on the Scientific American network, and has written for Nature Medicine and The Scientist. She holds Biology and Latin degrees from Carleton College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure