Over the past eighteen months, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many existing inequities in our society, including those related to technology and digital access. As more individuals have worked from home or engaged in remote learning, libraries of all types have observed increased demand for ebooks and other digital media, stretching budgets that are already thin and, in some cases, threatened.
“The Need for Change: A Position Paper on E-Lending by the Joint Digital Content Working Group” explores many of the challenges that public, academic, and school libraries have faced to meet this increased demand; challenges that are made only more difficult by the models for pricing, licensing, and usage set by ebook publishers. While the challenges vary somewhat from institution to institution, there are many similarities, especially as they impact public library patrons and students of all ages. As the paper points out, users “who rely most on libraries – often poor or otherwise marginalized groups – are especially disadvantaged, as are many students and their families as they struggle to succeed in remote learning situations.”
For public libraries, the increase in demand has been dramatic, with OverDrive reporting that library patrons borrowed 10.1 million ebooks via Libby, OverDrive’s e-reader app, during the first week of April 2020. This represents an almost 30% increase compared to the same week in 2019. Meeting this demand is already a challenge given that budgets are limited, and many public libraries are preparing for even tighter budgets in future years amid layoffs, furloughs, and funding cuts.
However, the situation is only worsened by ebook pricing models used by the so-called “Big Five,” those publishers who are responsible for the majority of high-demand titles in public library collections. One study cited in the position paper illustrates that the average price per copy of an ebook has tripled in nine years while licensing models have only become more restrictive over the same time period. With this in mind, the Digital Content Working Group argues in favor of a circulation-based model instead of a time-based metered model. Such a model would help public libraries with collection management and budget planning, allowing a librarian to know that any given ebook purchased would circulate a guaranteed number of times before its license expires, rather than expiring after a set time regardless of how many times it actually circulated. As explained in the position paper, “[only] then will libraries know what their cost-per-use on metered access titles might be.”
The position paper also makes the case for legislative action that would prevent companies from limiting competition in the digital content market, as is often the case when a publisher issues digital content exclusively through its own platforms. As tech giant publishers continue to limit users’ access to digital content, limitations that often exclude public libraries entirely, the inequities of the digital divide will only worsen.
Looking beyond public libraries, other types of libraries face similar challenges. For academic libraries, titles might be unavailable due to a combination of cost and licensing. Even more problematic is the challenge of streaming access, which is often inaccessible due to vendors’ pricing models. The pricing models use rates similar to public performance rights, even if only a single researcher is accessing a single digital title. This model will become less sustainable as more digital content is available only via streaming, a trend that has picked up momentum over the past year.
At the same time, since many vendors do not offer institutional access, students often need to use their personal accounts for streaming services to access materials required for class, an unfair burden that only deepens existing inequities for low-income students. Challenges of licensing and cost also hinder the ability of academic libraries to collect digital editions of textbooks, since e-textbooks are often tied to individual access keys that expire at the end of an academic year. This prevents academic libraries from preserving digital copies or placing digital editions on reserve, a valuable service that would support many students.
For school libraries, the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated challenges related to ebooks and other digital content, especially as many schools turn to remote learning. This is especially the case for students in neighborhoods that lack broadband access and therefore cannot utilize videoconferencing or otherwise media-rich educational resources, or who have poor cellular coverage and therefore cannot utilize Wi-Fi hotspots reliably. At the same time, while many students have smartphones, their value is limited if the accompanying data plans are not unlimited. For ebooks and other digital content, school library budgets are strained by costs of licenses, particularly for class sets. While this would enable students in a class to read the same book at the same time, current licensing models and pricing models make such resources cost-prohibitive in many cases.
Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed many aspects of our society, we are undeniably at a crossroads for how libraries of all types make digital content available to their respective communities. As the position paper explains: “This is a powerful moment for libraries, a juncture where there is an opportunity to evaluate and require equity in terms of the three components necessary for a successful library experience: access, discovery, and delivery. As usage by library patrons increases, and as academic and school libraries increasingly turn to digital, libraries are in a strong position to advocate for digital equality.”
See the full text of the ALA Joint Digital Content Working Group paper.