Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Public libraries have to take charge of their eBook strategies

On The Digital Shift blog, Pat Losinski, the CEO of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, writes that the time for libraries to sit back and accept the conditions imposed by eBook publishers and aggregators, and the refusal to supply eBooks to libraries by some publishers, has passed. While congratulating OverDrive for its pioneering work in making eBooks available to libraries, he says that the company is now dictating terms to public libraries for their supply of eBooks and audiobooks. He also says that those publishers that prohibit sales of their eBooks to libraries have no good reason for doing so--the "friction" that they're looking for to discourage cannibalization of retail eBook sales is already there, by requiring libraries to only checkout each copy to one patron at a time. Limited supplies of eBooks and wait lists encourage patrons to check out other titles or buy the eBooks.

In addition, Losinski points to publishers' and aggregators' policies of licensing, rather than selling, eBooks as another restraint on the ability of libraries to serve their communities. He notes that if a publisher of print books decides not to sell to libraries, those libraries can go to their local bookstores and buy copies of the books, then lend them under "first use" rights. However, licensing terms prohibit them from lending eBooks that they acquire in order to get around a publisher ban. In addition, aggregators are using licensing to lock libraries into their services, since libraries can't transfer their eBook collections from one aggregator to another. Even the Douglas County model falls apart if enough key publishers refuse to sell to libraries.

Losinski writes that between 60% and 80% of the Columbus Metropolitan Library's budget goes toward managing its print collections. eBooks allow libraries to divert some of those expenses for other uses, but only if libraries can offer the same range of titles and publishers in eBooks that they do in print. He points to academic libraries as having far more advanced eBook strategies than public libraries, and he wonders how long patrons will tolerate the difficulty and complexity of downloading eBooks. Losinski says that public libraries need to decide "will publishers and aggregators be allowed to dictate public policy for accessing content in this country, or will access remain a fundamental right of individuals?".

A group of public library executives met at the Columbus Metropolitan Library in early June to come up with a strategy for making more eBooks available to libraries. The group decided not to focus on eBook business models, new pilots or improved technology--those things are far more important to the publishers and aggregators than they are to the libraries, and as libraries have seen, it's very easy for publishers and aggregators to "move the goalposts" to suit their needs.

The group decided to focus on five key activities:
  • Public education 
  • Lobbying 
  • Research 
  • Coordinating and coalescing the various eBook initiatives underway at national associations, state library associations and individual libraries 
  • Publisher, author and vendor relationships 

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