June 20, 2024

Top Libraries in U.S. and Canada Issue Statement Demanding Better Ebook Services


Over 70 library systems from the United States and Canada — including New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Toronto, and Chicago — today issued a joint statement demanding vastly improved ebook services for library users in North America.

The statement, dubbed the ReadersFirst Initiative, outlines four principles the libraries want e-content providers — the middlemen between publishers and libraries — to follow in order to lift content restrictions and also make the borrowing experience less cumbersome.

“Libraries have a responsibility to fight for the public and ensure that users have the same open, easy and free access to ebooks that they have come to rely on with physical books,” the statement reads. “They face two major challenges. The first is that, unlike print books, publishers are not required to sell e-books to libraries – and many do not. This is a complex and evolving issue. The second, addressed here, is that the products currently offered by e-content distributors, the middlemen from whom libraries buy ebooks, create a fragmented, disjointed and cumbersome user experience.”

The four principles outlined in the letter, which is going to be sent to various distributors, were drafted and circulated by the New York Public Library (NYPL), said Christopher Platt, the director of collections and circulation operations at NYPL. Platt was speaking from the BEA convention taking place in New York City this week.

“We came up with some language and sent it around and it resonated and took off and it’s now really a joint statement. We did conference calls and  robust communications so everyone had input,” Platt said. “A lot of us are at BEA on the floor having quality time with some of these distributors so it’s good timing and we can talk to them and articulate our concerns.”

The four principles demand that library users be able to:

  • Search and browse a single comprehensive catalog with all of a library’s offerings at once, including all e-books, physical collections, programs, blogs, and donor opportunities. Currently, content providers often only allow searches within the products they sell, depriving users of the comprehensive library experience.
  • Place holds, check-out items, view availability, manage fines and receive communications within individual library catalogs or in the venue the library believes will serve them best, without having to visit separate websites (libraries, not distributors, should be enabled to manage all interactions with users).
  • Seamlessly enjoy a variety of e-content. To do this, libraries must be able to choose content, devices and apps from any provider or from multiple providers, without bundling that limits a library’s ability to serve content they purchase on platforms of their choice.
  • Download e-books that are compatible with all readers, from the Kindle to the Nook to the iPad and so on.

“In order for libraries to continue to function as key providers of information to the public, these basic principles must be followed,” the statement said. “The libraries who signed this agreement are committed to holding content providers to this standard, and will prioritize these requirements when acquiring e-books and other e-content.”

The principles clearly reflect the growing dissatisfaction among librarians not only about their inability to get ebooks from publishers but also with the fractured nature of the lending experience.

In particular, even as some publishers demand more “friction” be added to borrowing, the librarians’ demand for a frictionless, seamless experience stems from the requirement that library patrons often have to jump interfaces when borrowing an ebook and librarians would prefer that the transaction remain within the confines of their OPAC or their discovery layer (such as Bibliocommons).

“Vendors have tried to make their platforms library-like, but the user is still off the library site and segregated from the rest of the library experience and collection,” Platt said. “We need to make sure we are not segregating our patrons in a place where we can’t walk them back to the experience we want them to have.”

For example, NYPL uses Bibliocommons as its discovery layer and it contains crowd-sourced comments on various titles in the NYPL collection.

“If you get pulled off to another econtent platform you’re only searching within that econtent frame and missing all that other stuff,” Platt said. “And as econtent broadens we’re creating multiple log-ins and there is no reason to. It’s time to take a comprehensive look and stand on how we want the technology and business model to develop, and we aren’t just talking about the publishers.”

The circulation of the statement coincided nicely with a meeting of the Canadian Urban Libraries Council last week in Ottawa which allowed all the members who were in attendance (26) to voice their support, according to Jefferson Gilbert, the executive director. The organization has 40 members in all.

“The statement is completely in line with what we were working on already,” he said, noting that it echoed a statement the council first put together in 2010.

Gilbert said that his organization is preparing a request for information (RFI) that hopes to find a company that can address some of the technological issues raised in the statement and effectively create a service bureau that would act as a type of “lending layer” for libraries alongside their discovery layer. Gilbert said they hope to start a pilot project by January 2013.

“It’s important for the user. This is a user based advocacy effort to make it better for the user,” he said.

To date, the only vendors that have achieved an ILS integration are 3M and Polaris, but even that integration would not hold together should a library also offer content from an additional provider, which is often the case.

OverDrive recently announced that its APIs would be available in July, which would at least make integration with the OverDrive platform more doable.

In the case of reading devices, Kindle compatibility is the holy grail for many ebook distributors, but only OverDrive has a deal with Amazon at present, even as more distributors are entering the market with their own platforms (eg., Baker & Taylor’s Axis 360, Ebooks on EBSCOhost, Freading) that are not compatible with Kindle yet.

The American Library Association’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group has been exploring issues of business models and accessibility, and the group will be meeting at the upcoming ALA annual conference in Anaheim on  Sunday, June 24, from 1:30–3:30.

The confirmed signatories of the statement so far are:

Alameda County Library

Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Libraries

Arlington Public Library

Austin Public Library

Barrie Public Library

Bibliotheque de Gatineau

Bibliotheque de Montreal

Boston Public Library

Brooklyn Public Library

Burlington Public Library

Califa Library Group

Cambridge Libraries

Canadian Urban Libraries Council

CCS – Cooperative Computer Services

Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

Chicago Public Library

Columbus Metropolitan Library

County of Los Angeles Public Library

Daniel Boone Regional Library

Dekalb County Public Library

Denver Public Library

District of Columbia Public Library

DPLA Steering Committee

Durham County Library

Edmonton Public Library

Fraser Valley Regional Library

Free Library of Philadelphia

Georgetown County Library

Greater Victoria Public Library

Halifax Regional Library

Hamilton Public Library

Hartford Public Library

King County Library System

Kitchener Public Library

Lincoln City Libraries

Los Angeles Public Library

Madison Public Library

Markham Public Library

Memphis Public library

Mid-Continent Public Library

Mississauga Public Library

Multnomah County Library

Nashville Public Library

New Orleans Public Library

The New York Public Library

Omaha Public Library

Ottawa Public Library

Peninsula Library System

Pierce County Library System

Pima County Public Library

Prince George’s County Memorial Library

Princeton Public Library

Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County

Queens Library

Sacramento Public Library

Salt Lake City Library

Salt Lake County Library

San Diego County Library

San Diego Public Library

San Francisco Public Library

Santa Clara County Library

Saskatoon Library

The Seattle Public Library

Sno-Isle Libraries

Thunder Bay Public Library

Toledo-Lucas County Public Library

Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library

Toronto Public Library

Whitby Public Library

Wichita Public Library

Vancouver Island Regional Library

Vancouver Public Library

Vaughan Public Library



Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.


  1. I’d add another item to the list. Large, big-city libraries may be able to spend enough to acquire ebooks to follow the own-to-loan model of print books, but smaller libraries can’t. Much better for them would be per-use rental model. All the ebooks on the market would be available to their patrons, and the library would only need to pay a per-checkout rental fee. The policy would help big-city libraries, since there’d be no need to have a waiting list that, rather weirdly, pretends that a digital ebook can’t be checked out in unlimited quantities.

    Per checkout renting of ebooks would also benefit publishers and authors since their ebooks would be available on demand to almost anyone who wants to read them. That’d give them the entire U.S. as a market. It’d also stabilize their cash flow, since ebooks that have been out for years and are perhaps out of print would still be earning income.

    • I’ve been arguing for this model since last October, and this is the first instance I have seen of the pay-per-use argument anywhere else. This will be a HUGE benefit to authors and publishers. Every new publication should be available on the day it is released as an eBook to every library in the nation, on a pay-per-use basis, with no limitations on number of simultaneous checkouts. The cost-per-use should be about $.50 (the average cost per checkout of circulating adult materials according to recent statistics). Reading will explode as a national pastime and authors will make out like bandits.

      In the alternative, since push is coming to shove, libraries HAVE to be allowed to buy any eBook which is available for sale to any other individual or entity. The fact that eBooks are often not available for purchase by libraries is a national disgrace.


  2. Beth Posner says:

    There is also the issue of sharing ebooks – chapters or entire books – through interlibrary loan. If libraries are paying to buy these books then we should have the same rights – guided by copyright and fair use – that we do to share print books.

  3. Vince Juliano says:

    Libraries also need to stick together nationally in order to discourage price-gouging by publishers. The claim that library use discourages book purchases is unfounded. Publishers, booksellers, and libraries share a common interest in serving the reading public and in promoting literacy. Readers use libraries and also buy books, both for themselves and for others. This was well understood before eBooks came along. If publishers place too big a financial burden on libraries, they not only lose library customers, they also lose individual customers.

  4. The ReadersFirst statement and the ability to add your library to the list of signatories is now available at http://readersfirst.org

  5. As the author of two e-books (101 Movies About Women Directed By Women and How To Avoid Deadly Everyday Dangers; The Women’s Safety Guide) and four print books, I am always alarmed and irritated by the general lack of concern shown to the interests of authors in such discussions.
    Let me just remind all the folks at the libraries that, while you may have lofty pretensions of helping the public and all that, you are essentially a high-class delivery system for stuff we create and without us you are nothing. You are still in the loop when it comes to authors connecting with readers, but your future could be just as rocky as that currently shaking up the publishing industry right now if we can work out a better way. From my own personal perspective, it can’t happen too soon for the people at the Toronto Public Library.

  6. Jim Cooper says:

    I so agree with the points Dale made earlier, particularly the “authors will make out like bandits” and libraries having the right to purchase eBooks. I think authors need to take a stand on this matter as well. If there are authors who “bristle” at the thought of a single e-book finding its way into the hands of multiple readers, won’t education decline? The technology to turn every book into a “content stream” already exists. Picture a scenario where every reference used in the creation of the textbook or magazine article must first be purchased in order to “cite” it as a reference. Image continued scenarios where references to books from a “competing” publisher/distributor are forbidden. This appears to be a new “golden age” for authorship and journalism. Let’s remind each other that libraries are instrumental to an author’s ability to influence readers.I suggest that you approach the next author you like and tell them you are a “big fan” and see how may ask “did you buy my book, or just read it from the library?”