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The Battle Over E-Books


Librarians are reporting dramatic increases in the numbers of people looking to borrow electronic books. It's not uncommon for a public library to report numbers doubling year-over-year in e-book usage. While libraries are trying to keep up with demand, some publishing houses are rethinking whether they want libraries loaning out e-books at all.

Librarians are reporting dramatic increases in the numbers of people looking to borrow electronic books, commonly called E-books. It's not uncommon for a public library to report numbers doubling year over year in e-book usage. But some publishing houses are rethinking whether they want libraries loaning out e-books at all.

This past December, nearly 1,000 new patrons registered to download E-books through the CLAMS library network on Cape Cod and the Islands. But some of those patrons may be disappointed in the selection.

“This is an example of a title that’s available at a much cheaper rate on," said Eileen Chandler, who works for the CLAMS library network's central office in Hyannis. Part of her job is to purchase e-books for the network's 32 member libraries. "I believe it’s around 10 dollars. And we purchased it for 72 dollars."

Sturgis Library 300.jpg
Credit Sean Corcoran
Sturgis Library, in Barnstable, is the oldest library building in the country. Like other libraries in the state, it's seen a significant increase in patron use since the economy faltered three years ago.

"It’s called Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward," Chandler said. "It's published by Bloomsbury. It’s a historical fiction title, National Book Award. So we had received requests from patrons to purchase this title. We have two copies. Actually the exact price on for the consumer is 9 dollars and 12 cents. If CLAMS was able to get these titles at the discounted price we would buy a lot more copies. Which in the end would benefit our patrons, the publisher, and the supplier.”  

The CLAMS network has accumulated a collection of nearly 4,000 unique e-book titles. But with dozens of e-book-seeking patrons registering each day, librarians hear a lot about the lack of choices for people's Kindles, IPads and Nooks.

"It’s really like building a library from scratch," Chandler said. Which is very difficult given budget constraints. And also we started this service in 2008 with 100 e-books. So it’s also a question of time to build up the collection.”

As librarians buy and lend the downloadable, written word, price is only one of the impediments. Some publishers will not sell e-book titles to libraries at all. Others only sell some titles. And Publishing giant HarperCollins has completely changed the rules of electronic library book lending. It now restricts libraries to 26 lends. After 26, the library must repurchase the e-book license.

In response, CLAMS  director Gayle Simundza said the CLAMS member libraries are boycotting Harper Collins e-books.

"As far as I know Cape libraries are continuing to purchase titles from Harper Collins," she said. "So those titles are available in print format. Because of the restriction on the electronic, the libraries decided they were concerned enough about this restriction that they felt it was important to make that kind of statement.”

Falmouth reference librarian Jill Erickson said librarians are left to explain to patrons why the book they see on the bestsellers list or on a nearby bookshelf, is not available for their e-reader.

"It's not good for our patrons," Erickson said, "and we are all about sharing information. It's really distressing that publishers who have always been friends of public libraries are now adversaries."

Erik Gilg is the editorial director at Zenith Press of the Quayside Publishing Group, which does sell its e-books to libraries. He calls the situation "tumultuous," but like others in the publishing industry, he expects it will be settled once a workable business model is found.

"Publishers just want to protect content and are just unsure what degree books are being lent out," Gilg said. "There is just huge tension with that in terms of providing content and how many times and providing this model that publishers feel is equitable."

Carrie Russell, spokesperson for the American Library Association, said the ALA is in touch with publishers, but so far there is no industry-wide policy when it comes to e-books.

"The ALA really thinks that lending is an essential public service in a democracy," she said. "We value it. Other countries don’t have it. We value the fact that we can buy books and lend them. Whether it is by ownership like a print book. Or whether it’s through a license agreement that is favorable to what we want to do with the book. And is affordable."

Meanwhile, public libraries spent $26.5 million last year on the e-books that are available -- double what was spent in 2010.

In the town of Sandwich, Library director Joanne Lamont said e-content circulation increased 65 percent last month alone.

“We discuss this all day long," Lamont said. "And if I’m not reading about it, you know I’m having a conversation with a library patron, or I’m having the conversation with a fellow staff member. That this is really a dilemma for the public library."

Lamont said libraries are committed to expanding literacy and promoting writing. And it's libraries that are now teaching people how to download e-books and operate the  e-readers patrons receive during holidays and birthdays. Some libraries reporting workshops attended by hundreds of people in just the past few months.  

"The frustration level of … sometimes we come in, we’ll come in and we’ll have a line of people at the reference desk -- show me how to download an e-book," Lamont said. "And we don’t always have content available through either our Old Colony network, our resource sharing consortia, or through our own collection, just because the titles are not out there available for us as a public library to purchase."

In some ways, this digital lending battle may be a watershed moment for libraries as more and more of their collections go digital. Just how the publishing houses handle their content when it comes to lending libraries, may one day serve as a model for other media companies -- such as movie and television companies -- whose content is becoming more and more downloadable.