Going nearly unnoticed by the school library profession is a battle being fought that may well determine whether libraries continue to exist. And this is not hyperbole.
To date, major publishers (often called the Big6) have been treating e-books far differently from the way they treat print books when providing them to libraries. Limiting the number of circulations before needing to be repurchased, selling for a hugely inflated cost (5X the cost of a print title), leasing rather than selling ownership of titles, and refusing to sell to libraries altogether are some of the conditions major publishers have imposed on library sales - especially of popular titles.
I am not sure exactly why publishers are so leery of entering into the same symbiotic relationship they've enjoyed with libraries that they have had in the print book era - more exposure to books, authors, and genres via libraries leading to bigger sales for publishers. Fear of piracy, maximization of profits, because they can?
Public libraries have adopted some strategies to deal with the restrictions placed on e-books sales in a number of ways, including becoming self-publishers (Douglas (CO) County Libraries) and public-shaming via Facebook (Kansas State Library System). But neither of these solutions are particularly satisfying when one would like to check out the latest Michael Connolly mystery in digital form.1
What may be more effective are efforts now being made by state and local governments passing resolutions asking for legislation regulating the sale of e-books to libraries, citing the availability of published materials through libraries as a public good.2 We've needed, but not had, a First-Sale Doctrine for the distribution and ownership of e-materials for some time. Such a doctrine is not something the free market is likely to provide on its own.
I applaud the work the American Library Association is doing in working with publishers to find some treaty in this war between libraries and publishers. As an increasing number of us read primarily (or solely) e-content and as devices for reading e-books and magazines drop in price, the ability for libraries to provide materials that the public actually wants electronically will be critical.
So I'm thinking about this as I prepare to spend over $17K on e-book titles for just our elementary schools. This amount, about 22% of our total materials budget, will buy 66 titles of primarily high-interest non-fiction. Purchased through Mackin Via, these titles will be available to us into perpetuity, can be read by multiple users simultaneously, and be accessed from home. I estimate we are paying at least 50% more per title than were we buying these items in print format despite getting a "10% discount" and buying for all 10 elementary school libraries at the same time.
- Is the premium we are paying for getting titles in e-book format worth it? Will classroom teachers use the multiple readers at one time to supplement their reading programs? Will parents access these materials from home to encourage independent reading? Do we have enough devices for students on which these titles can be read?
- Will this format appeal to and support some readers better than might print materials? Will we make readers out of students with whom we previously have not had success?
- Should a part of the cost of these materials be born by the curricular area that they support since they may be used as classroom readers?
- Can library programs afford NOT to experiment with e-books, especially as all classes begin to use online materials to support instruction? Will we be viewed as irrelevant?
- What can we (school librarians) do to increase fair prices and liberal use policies from publishers, especially for popular titles in demand by students? Is ALA working with children and young adult book publishers, or just those for adult readers? What can our state school library associations or local units of government do?
AASL, ISTE SIGMS, are you listening? Readers, what actions have you taken to obtain fair access and prices to e-books for your school libraries?
Lookin' for help here!