U.S. libraries push for legislative action to address soaring e-book costs

  • Libraries across the United States are grappling with the high cost of e-books and audiobooks, which often cost far more than what consumers pay.
  • Unlike consumer-purchased e-books, library rental e-books have an expiration date, resulting in ongoing renewal costs.
  • Librarians are pushing for legislative changes to address affordability gaps and limitations of electronic materials.

Whenever best-selling author Robin Cook publishes a new medical thriller, public library directors West Haven, Connecticut Know that demand for digital copies will be high. So will the price.

Like many libraries, West Haven has been grappling with the soaring cost of e-books and audiobooks. The price tag for digital games is often much higher than what consumers pay. A hardcover copy of Cook’s latest novel sells for $18 at the library, while leasing a digital copy costs $55—a price that cannot be negotiated with the publisher.

For this reason, e-books expire after a limited period of time, usually after one or two years, or after 26 borrowings, whichever comes first. Although e-books Electronic materials purchased by consumers can be kept permanently, and libraries need to update the electronic materials they rent.

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The West Haven library, with limited funds, has spent more than $12,000 over the past three years renting just 276 additional digital titles beyond what patrons can access through the public library consortium. Eighty-four of these books are no longer available. If the same amount of money were spent on paper books, about 800 titles could be covered.

Librarian Megan McArdle displays an e-book on one of nine new Rocket e-books from the Chicago Public Library. Libraries across the United States are grappling with the high cost of e-books and audiobooks, which often cost far more than what consumers pay. (Tim Boyle/Newsmaker)

“Imagine if a school built a playground with taxpayer money, only to have it demolished after two years of use,” librarian Colleen Bailey said at a recent public hearing.

However, publishers argue that this arrangement is fair because the library’s e-book license allows large numbers of readers to “borrow” them and the cost per reader is much cheaper than the per-reader rate.

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Librarians in several states have been pushing for legislation to control costs and restrictions on electronic materials, which have grown in popularity since the COVID-19 pandemic. There are long waiting lists for audio and e-book subscribers, and digital titles are limited.

This year, lawmakers in states including Connecticut, Massachusetts, Illinois, Hawaii and New Hampshire have introduced bills aimed at closing the affordability gap. A bill was introduced in Virginia but was shelved in February.

They faced strong opposition from the publishing industry, which argued that the legislation undermined the value of intellectual property and would harm the publishing ecosystem.

“They do have a funding problem, but the solution is not to take money out of authors’ pockets, undermine creators’ rights, and pass unconstitutional legislation,” said Shelley Hasband, senior vice president of government affairs at the Association of American Publishers, pointing out. More people than ever before have access to electronic materials that would otherwise be purchased from booksellers.

Readers worldwide borrowed 662 million e-books, audiobooks and digital magazines last year, a 19% increase since 2022, according to data provided by OverDrive, a major distributor of digital content for libraries and schools.

Libraries Online Inc., an interlibrary consortium in Connecticut, currently spends about $20,000 a month on e-books for its 38 members. Rebecca Harlow, chair of the e-book committee, said replacing out-of-date books consumes 20 percent of the consortium’s budget.

“If we replaced everything that has expired this year, the cost would exceed our entire annual e-book budget,” Harlow recently told lawmakers. “We have completely lost the ability to build library collections.”

She said the alliance rents just under 30 books a month for children and 30 books for teenagers.

For libraries with patrons like Casey Rosseau, 53, of West Hartford, Conn., giving up e-books and audiobooks wasn’t considered an option.

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Rosseau is an information technology worker whose vision is deteriorating. He reads about 200 audiobooks a year using the OverDrive Libby app on his phone, and is often on a waiting list for months for the most coveted books.

“I always go to the library and get the latest John Grisham or the latest James Patterson (novel),” he said. “These products come out so often that you have to have deep pockets to afford them.”

In 2021, Maryland passed a law requiring publishers to make e-books available to the public on “reasonable terms” to libraries. In 2022, after publishers successfully argued that federal copyright law prohibited states from regulating publishing deals, a judge rejected that claim. New York Governor Kathy Hochul vetoed a similar measure in 2021.

Many of the latest legislative proposals try different approaches.

An Illinois bill would invalidate contracts between libraries and publishers that contain certain provisions, such as limiting a library’s right to determine the length of time a licensed electronic material will be borrowed. Massachusetts and Connecticut are considering similar proposals.

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“Basically, instead of telling publishers they have to do anything special, our bill tells libraries the terms under which they can make deals with publishers,” said Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Conn.

Husband of the Association of American Publishers said she sees no real difference between the overturned Maryland law and these latest efforts. Last year, groups representing publishers, booksellers and authors formed the Alliance to Protect the Creative Economy to oppose the state legislation.

But Julie Holden, assistant librarian at the Cranston Public Library rhode islandWithout legislative reform, local librarians will not only continue to face financial pressures, but will also be stuck reviewing a list of expiring digital leases to decide whether spending more money to renew each one is justified .

“Taxpayers who fund our public libraries deserve better. Better,” she said.

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By Ali Raza

I am a dedicated and skilled News Content Writer with a passion for delivering accurate and engaging stories to a diverse audience. With a solid background in journalism and a keen eye for detail, I bring a commitment to excellence and a deep understanding of the evolving media landscape.

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