If you received a Kindle or Nook as a holiday present, you’re probably wanting to put some e-books on it. Last year’s Christmas was the single biggest day for e-book sales for Harper Collins, according to the New York Times. While you can go to Amazon and buy or rent books, you could also go to the webpage of your local library. But if you do the latter, your choices are likely to be limited and could be even more limited, as publishers seek industry-wide regulations about e-lending.
Worried that people will click “borrow” on a library’s website rather than buy an e-book on an e-commerce site, many major publishers in the US block libraries from accessing the e-book form of all their books, or of the the most recent ones. Their arguments are based on the fact that e-books can theoretically be downloaded an infinite number of times; as Maja Thomas, a senior vice president of the Hachettte Book Group in the digital division says, “that is not a sustainable business model for us.” In contrast, borrowing an actual, real, print book requires getting yourself to to the library, finding the book on the shelf, checking it out and then returning the book to the library. Real books are, of course, subject to physical wear and tear — ripped pages, coffee splotches — and must be replaced from time to time.
Some large publishers, such as Simon & Schuster, have never made e-books available to libraries. Since March, Harper Collins began to license each e-book copy sold to a library to be loaned out a maximum of 26 times, rather than allowing unlimited loans; after reaching the maximum number of loans, a library can repurchase access rights at a lower cost than the original price (this policy only applies to popular titles). There are limitations when borrowing an e-book: Only one person can read the book at a time and people still have to wait for a title to become available.
Of course, publishers and the authors of books have to protect their financial interests. But publishers’ restrictions on e-books “tamper with the sacrosanct idea that a library can do whatever it wishes with a book it obtains,” as the New York Times points out. American Library Association President Roberta Stevens said in a press release:
“Libraries have a long history of providing access to knowledge, information and the creative written works of authors. We are committed to equal and free access for the millions of people who depend on their library’s resources every day. While demand has surged, financial support has decreased. The announcement, at a time when libraries are struggling to remain open and staffed, is of grave concern. This new limitation means that fewer people will have access to an increasingly important format for delivering information.”
There is a silver lining in that some 1,000 smaller publishers have no restrictions on how many e-books they sell to libraries, so readers can read those books as often as they’d like.
E-books are clearly the format that many of us will be reading in the future. A million Kindles were sold in the three weeks prior to December 15; I was pleased to note that our local library has a few Nooks that can be borrowed, for those who aren’t sure about purchasing one, or who can’t afford one. But living in an era of e-books means that libraries’ holdings are not quite as “free and public” as they used to be. Certain books are free, but only to a certain extent, according to the publishers’ terms. Should libraries, and library patrons (i.e., taxpayers who support public libraries), not have a say in e-lending issues?
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