Libraries and Public Access to E-Books: What City Leaders Can Do

More than half of all Americans say they visited a library or a bookmobile in the past year, but for the first time, these libraries are unable to provide equal access to reading materials, driving a wedge between higher and lower income Americans. 

Many library patrons looking to borrow the hottest new e-book are finding themselves out of luck. This isn’t because e-books are flying off the shelves; in fact, one of the benefits of e-books is that multiple users can check out an e-book at the same time.  Instead, libraries are having trouble offering e-books because many book publishers are setting outrageously high prices or refusing to sell to libraries altogether.

This inability of libraries to meet demand for e-books has prompted local and state governments to take action in recent months. In Montgomery County, Md., the County Council passed a resolution in July urging state and national legislators, as well as other government bodies, to examine publishers’ pricing policies on licensing e-books to public libraries.

The Council’s resolution came just two weeks after Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy signed legislation authorizing a study to investigate e-book pricing practices of publishers and third-party distributors towards libraries. The legislation also mandated the creation of a set of recommendations to make e-books more available to public libraries in the state.

Both efforts were driven by a sharp rise in library patrons looking to borrow e-books. According to the Pew Internet Project, more Americans (21 percent) read e-books last year than ever before, while those who read a print book declined to 67 percent from 72 percent the year before.

More libraries are offering e-books than ever before too, with 76 percent lending e-books, up from only 38 percent in 2007.  However, because e-books are usually licensed – rather than sold like print books – book publishers are able to control the licensing rights and restrict how the e-book is used.  While policies vary by publisher – and change frequently – the major publishers are engaging in practices that either deny libraries full access to e-books or significantly overprice titles.

Public libraries are increasingly centers of learning in our communities. Libraries help people of every age and every stage of their life learn skills and knowledge they need for their future.
They also provide access to technology and services for patrons while also serving as a community anchor, promoting a healthy democracy by promising that information and the pursuit of knowledge are available to all.

These 21st century libraries also have a mission to provide equal access to materials – including e-books – so that all citizens can acquire information that they need. When libraries are inhibited from providing full access, it undermines the key element of this promise.

City officials can protect the library’s function to provide access to e-books and other materials by encouraging oversight on publishers’ licensing practices.  That can mean adopting resolutions like that developed in Montgomery County, Md., or urging their state legislators, Congress, the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission to look into the unfair e-books policies. 

Local leaders have an obligation to ensure that their community’s public libraries are able to provide access to information and technology and continue to function as a space in the community that enhances and enriches the lives of residents.

The Urban Libraries Council has published a briefing paper and a one-pager on the issue. Download them here.

Susan Benton, President and CEO of the Urban Libraries Council (ULC), the premier membership organization for North America’s leading public library systems. The National League of Cities Institute for Youth Education and Families is launching a strategic partnership with ULC by hosting joint sessions at the upcoming National Summit on Youth City’s Families.