It’s a rare thing in a free market when a customer is refused the ability to buy a company’s product and is told its money is “no good here.” Surprisingly, after centuries of enthusiastically supporting publishers’ products, libraries find themselves in just that position with purchasing ebooks from three of the largest publishers in the world. Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin have been denying access to their ebooks for our nation’s 112,000 libraries and roughly 169 million public library users. Let’s be clear on what this means: If our libraries’ digital bookshelves mirrored the New York Times fiction bestseller list, we would be missing half of our collection any given week due to these publishers’ policies. The popular Bared to You and The Glass Castle are not available in libraries because libraries cannot purchase them at any price. Today’s teens also will not find the digital copy of Judy Blume’s seminal Forever, nor today’s blockbuster “Hunger Games” series.
Libraries around the country are developing mobile applications and online discovery systems that make it easier to explore books and authors on the go. Seventy-six percent of public libraries now offer ebooks – double the number from only five years ago – and 39 percent of libraries have purchased and circulate e-readers. Public libraries alone spend more than $1.3 billion annually on their collections of print, audio, video, and electronic materials. They are investing not only in access to content and devices, but also in teaching the skills needed to navigate and utilize digital content successfully.
Librarians understand that publishing is not just another industry. It has special and important significance to society. Libraries complement and, in fact, actively support this industry by supporting literacy and seeking to spread an infectious and lifelong love of reading and learning. Library lending encourages patrons to experiment by sampling new authors, topics, and genres. This experimentation stimulates the market for books, with the library serving as a de facto discovery, promotion, and awareness service for authors and publishers.
We librarians cannot stand by and do nothing while some publishers deepen the digital divide. We cannot wait passively while some publishers deny access to our cultural record. We must speak out on behalf of today’s – and tomorrow’s – readers. The library community demands meaningful change and creative solutions that serve libraries and our readers who rightfully expect the same access to ebooks as they have to printed books.
So, which side will you be on? Will you join us in a future of liberating literature for all? Libraries stand with readers, thinkers, writers, dreamers, and inventors. Books and knowledge – in all their forms – are essential. Access to them must not be denied.