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Libraries Struggle With Rising Cost of E-Books

The Washoe County Library Director explains how recent changes in e-publishing are affecting libraries.

by Jeff Scott

Many Washoe County Library System patrons have discovered the library's e-books in the past few years. We have had a 117 percent increase with our online check-out, and our e-book usage exceeds that of our busiest branch every month. On a national scale, there is an increase in usage of e-books and downloadable audiobooks. Patrons can see the ease of use and versatility of e-books provided by their local libraries, and we are glad to provide such a convenient way to read to our patrons.

However, to provide our patrons with this material, costs have increased dramatically.  Whereas, the average book reader may pay anywhere from $10 to $25 for a new release book,and libraries are often paying four times that amount to provide e-book access.  Furthermore, we often can't keep the e-book after a certain number of checkouts.  Some simply have an expiration date where we can no longer provide the title or we would have to re-purchase the e-book title.

When we provide access for e-books we are paying for a license. We do not own the content. This is true of most digital content. Our physical books follow the First Sale Doctrine, which dictates that when a library in the United States purchases a physical copy of a book the library can lend it to users again and again. Unlike physical books, digital materials are mostly licensed, more expensive, and ephemeral.   

This problem is only worsening with recent changes planned by the Macmillan Publishers. Beginning  November 2019, Macmillan will only allow libraries to purchase a single copy of an e-book for two months. This means that the authors you have come to know and love will not be as available. For instance, we will only get a single copy of the next Nora Roberts book to be released in November. To the 89 people who are already waiting for a single copy, maybe three of them will be able to read it before the end of this year.  

Other Macmillan titles that will be affected by this new policy include:  

Even more titles will be impacted after November.

Lastly, many people use e-books for their accessibility features. Screen text can be made larger to read and accessibility options on tablets and phones allow books to be read to patrons. With these restrictions, these books will be inaccessible to our patrons.  

I wanted to make you aware of the impact on our tax paying library users and let you know where you can provide feedback. To find out more information on this and to provide your comments please visit https://ebooksforall.org.   

Jeff Scott is the Director of Washoe County Library System. He can be reached at jscott@washoecountylibrary.us

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