December 10, 2023

Ebook Strategy and Public Libraries: Slow Just Won’t Work Anymore


OK, it’s time for a little tough love for public library leaders. We haven’t been as visionary, vigilant and assertive as we need to be when it comes to mapping our future in the ebook world. And unfortunately, too much of our time has been spent reacting to business models that seemingly reflect only commercial interests, rather than boldly advocating for business models that also serve the public’s interests.

Our primary role is to champion the rights of access for our users. Our ebook strategy needs a serious overhaul, and it needs to happen right now. Unless we move quickly, the technology divide that we’ve all been battling the last 20 years will look like a minor skirmish compared to the content divide that is mounting.

Why it matters

Let’s get a few facts on the table. First, Overdrive should be applauded for having the vision – long before anyone else – that ebooks would one day penetrate and gain a strong foothold in the public library marketplace. Without the network and conduit to publishers Overdrive has created over the last 25 years, public libraries would have been even farther removed from the dynamic world of ebook lending. That said, we are now subject to a virtual monopoly with one vendor/aggregator dictating the rules of engagement for the dissemination of commercial digital content to the public we serve. This commercial digital content includes ebook formats of the most current and popular titles that drive circulation activity in most public libraries.

Pat Losinski is the CEO of Columbus Metropolitan Library.

Second, we are all aware that several major publishers have refused to sell commercial digital content to public libraries via ebook aggregators. The result? Our users are being denied access to critical content and the role of public libraries could change forever if this troubling trend is not reversed. We need to catapult user access to commercial content to the top of our digital strategy or preside over our declining purpose in society.

The perfect storm formula of a monopolistic environment and the actions (or more accurately, the deliberate inaction) of publishers have resulted in the creation of a significant shift in public policy in this country. After more than 100 years of public libraries circulating materials to users, we are no longer able to provide access to critical content that now exists in digital form. As a result, two very distinct scenarios are emerging in the communities we serve. Affluent users in prosperous neighborhoods have universal broadband access, numerous ebook hosting devices, and a credit card with the disposable income to acquire whatever content they want. Low-income residents in poorer neighborhoods do not have this sequence of resources and run the risk of not being able to access digital content that will allow them to fairly participate, compete and contribute to the digital economy/world. This content divide goes against the very principles that attracted so many of us to this profession –supporting democracy by providing access to information in the broadest possible context.

I’ve tried to make the argument directly to non-participating ebook publishers that the “friction” they seek in the ebook circulation model is present. Like the analog book circulation model in public libraries, we have a “one user per one copy” model for downloading ebooks. In the traditional model, when users visit the library and find all hard copies checked out, they either add their name to the reserve list (often prompting the purchase of an additional hard copy when holds-to-copy ratios are exceeded), find an alternative title, or purchase the book from a commercial source. In the ebook model, this same sequence of choices is available to customers: place a hold for the reserve list, move on to a different title, or purchase. With many public libraries willing to offer a “buy it now” option on their online catalog for waitlisted ebooks, you would think that publishers would welcome this new commercial tack. I’ve yet to convince the publishers reluctant to sell us ebooks that this is indeed a win/win.

While our commercial digital content focus needs to shift from our institutional interests to our user interests, it is worth noting that even the present path of spotty ebook availability is bound to have a profound impact upon our business model.

I’ve never really tried to calculate the percentage of Columbus Metropolitan Library’s (CML) budget that is devoted to managing our analog collections – but I’d wager that it is between 60-80 percent of our entire budget. Just think about acquisitions, catalog/processing, transportation, sorting, shelving, check-out/in and all of the people and equipment devoted to these processes. Even though we have all done a great job of redefining public library roles through the addition of homework help and job help centers, technology training, community programming, etc., these activities are the 20 percent of our 80/20 rule.

Our bread and butter for as long as anyone can remember has been that our users visit us, gather and check out content, leave our facilities to consume this content at another time and place, and return the content when consumed or prompted for its return. Ebooks change this dynamic and their growth will have a dramatic impact upon our service delivery for the future. Trends all around us hint at the tsunami that is forming: flat analog book circulation in public libraries, plateaued DVD investment by the industry, as well as many of the provocative findings in the latest installment of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and the American Life Project: Libraries, patrons and ebooks. If we pay attention to the “one-off” tangential news reports/projections from the likes of Forbes and Pricewaterhouse Cooper, we should all become motivated to act now.

How Could This Have Happened? It’s the law AND the format!

George H. Pike, director of the Barco Law Library and assistant professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, has written extensively on copyright, the First Sale Doctrine, and the legal challenges surrounding the sale or lending of digital content.

The First Sale Doctrine of copyright law allows the owner to vend, copy or distribute – essentially granting the right for public libraries to lend materials. Professor Pikes writes,

Digital content has created challenges for the first sale doctrine. Two important limitations in the doctrine have restricted its applicability to most forms of digital content. The first is the requirement of “lawful ownership.” Most software, databases, and other digital content is licensed, which limits the level of “ownership” that the user obtains. And second, the doctrine applies to a particular “copy” of a work. Digital distribution doesn’t transfer the particular copy of a work, but it makes a new, identical copy that is distributed. (Information Today – October 2007, p. 17)

I’m not going to dive deeply into the legal issues surrounding the circulation/downloading of ebook content. But here’s how these issues begin to play out for public libraries. Do we own or lease this commercial digital content? Despite the efforts of the Kansas State Library, most of us are leasing access to ebooks through Overdrive as opposed to buying the content. While we haven’t quite determined how to reach the win/win formula for ebook aggregators and public libraries, Harper Collins 26 circulations model may end up being the best option for preserving the economics that will incentivize publishers to work with public libraries.

Some of the most innovative ebook pilots to challenge the current state of ebook aggregator dominance (such as the Douglas County model) tout ownership of ebooks as paramount. But how do we provide access when a publisher just says “no” and refuses to sell to public libraries? Had this happened in the old analog world of book buying, we would have headed to our local (now rarely existent) bookstore, purchased the copy and placed it in circulation. That option is not available when we are unable to purchase commercial digital content through an aggregator or directly from a publisher. Due to the dominance of one –or just a few emerging – ebook aggregators, we don’t have the scalable alternative models that allow us to act as quickly as needed in this rapidly changing ebook environment. And what would/could happen if Overdrive was acquired by Amazon? The ability for libraries to represent and serve the interests of the public could be severely curtailed.

What is Our Best Strategy? Turn Conversations into Actions!

Let’s face it, our academic library colleagues have been way out ahead of us when it comes to digital strategy – and we should all be thankful for their foresight and leadership. The Digital Public Library of America has tackled a complex set of issues and has convened interested participants through their workstreams and conferences. The National Digital Public Library (NDPL) forum held in Los Angeles last year was a good first step in moving the discussion to the public library sector (NDPL summary: America’s Digital Future: Advancing a shared strategy for digital public libraries). The American Library Association has commissioned the Digital Content and Libraries Working Group to address the myriad issues related to the ongoing ebook explosion. And recently, the New York Public Library has attempted to influence key “business to business” technology applications in an effort to streamline access to commercial digital content. It’s remarkable that members of the public who do download ebooks from public libraries tolerate the clunkiness and complexity of our ebook downloading process. That tolerance is bound to wear thin as commercial lending options emerge as real competition to public libraries.

I’ve been perplexed by our profession’s lack of focus on user access. Because at the end of the day, every business model or technological innovation that we create is trumped when a publisher refuses to sell digital content to public libraries. I’m in favor of the profession’s continued attempts to have professionally courteous conversations with publishers, Amazon, Overdrive, etc., about our concerns. But at the same time, we need to decide – will publishers and aggregators be allowed to dictate public policy for accessing content in this country, or will access remain a fundamental right of individuals? I emphatically insist it is the latter, which led to a recent decision to convene public library leaders to discuss the best way to achieve this goal.

Convening in Columbus

On June 8, 2012, a group of public library leaders met at CML to discuss options for determining a strategy that will ensure public access to all commercial digital content (ebooks, audiobooks, etc.). This informal gathering was an outgrowth of NDPL discussions and a summary white paper co-authored with Martin Gomez (former Director of the Los Angeles Public Library and driving force behind the NDPL forum). Embedded in this strategy was the decision to NOT focus on ebook business models, new pilots, or improved technology.

Our recommendations and strategies call for an umbrella advocacy strategy with attention to five subcomponent activities:

  •  Public education
  • Lobbying
  • Research
  • Coalescing Associations’ Initiatives
  • Publisher/Author/Vendor Relationships

These activities could begin to address the following questions:

  • How might we ramp up a standardized national education program to explain the inequities of digital access to the general public?
  • Should we actively engage in discussions with members of congress to educate them on the rapidly forming chasm between digital haves and digital have nots?
  • Could a clearinghouse or repository of ebook innovations be created to assist with activities 1 and 2?
  • How do we bridge and disseminate the ebook development efforts of national associations like ALA, ULC, PLA, COSLA and other initiatives by state library associations and entrepreneurial libraries?
  • How do we expand upon the conversations between many public library leaders in our largest institutions (and/or those working in concert with library associations) and reluctant publishers?

Participants at the June 8 CML gathering agreed to investigate the formation of, or affiliation with, an organization that could focus solely on driving these activities in support of the larger advocacy strategy to promote universal public access to ebooks. Yes, we need to continue our formal and informal conversations with publishers. We need to assure publishers that “one digital copy/one digital user” is a working model. And that public libraries pay for content (too many publishers still think we get content for free), support copyright compliance, and serve as a network of national ebook discovery portals that supports the commercial interests of authors and publishers. However, we must understand that if one or more publishers are able to continue to refuse to sell commercial digital content to public libraries, full equitable public access to this content will remain elusive.

The creation of this ebook advocacy organization is meant to be temporary – intended to sunset when our vision of public access to all commercial digital content is realized. None of us can afford to continue the pattern that has emerged over the past several years of robust conversations about ebooks at national conferences, followed by a return to our local organizations and the ensuing lack of a sustained effort to create more avenues to commercial digital content. We need to continue to meet with publishers to discuss all matters related to our business relationship. We also need to let them know that we are pursuing the revision of appropriate federal laws to allow public libraries access to purchase commercial digital content on behalf of our users. This process of parallel conversations does not need to be viewed as adversarial. We need to remind publishers and aggregators that we take our responsibility to represent the public very seriously. It is our responsibility to ensure ebook public policy is shaped by public interests and not just the interests of publishers and vendors.


I’ve spoken to numerous groups and countless library customers about the lack of access resulting from publishers’ refusal to sell popular ebooks to public libraries. Almost universally, the response is “That’s not right,” or “What can we do about this?” When told about this scenario, a recently-retired, long-time member of Congress, said, “That’s a restriction of free trade.” I’m not sure if he’s right, but it illustrates yet another example of possible interpretations surrounding the ebook marketplace.

I also understand and appreciate the cautionary approach of our publishing partners. They don’t want to make a critical “Napster-like” mistake that will destroy their business model or result in a single dominant distributor of all content in the future. But they must also understand that we will fight for the rights of every child and adult to have access to digital content – most likely through our national network of public libraries.

The stakes are high. We can’t afford to continue to passively accept one-sided propositions from the publishing industry. The legislative or judicial path we must pursue will not be easy. As public librarians, we must rededicate ourselves to advocate for the public that has counted on us to do so throughout our history. Without such action, we just might be the next Borders or Blockbuster.

Pat Losinski is CEO of Columbus Metropolitan Library in Columbus, Ohio.

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  1. Does the Library of Congress play any part in this?

  2. Pat Losinski says:

    I think so. I have not been in touch with or researched what LC might be doing in this arena.

  3. Liz Calafiore says:

    Thanks for writing about this important issue. As the gap between the haves and have nots widen, this discussion is going to grow in importance. I do have a question about overdrive. I read that some publishers have stopped making their ebooks available to Overdrive and public libraries. Will this have a significant impact, and are there any alternatives to overdrive?

  4. I can’t think of a more important issue in the future of libraries. This inequity, if it persists will threaten access to information to our neediest citizens. Well and thoroughly argued, Pat. Time to make some noise.

  5. I think the most important part of this discussion is “why.” Why won’t publishers sell? It’s the same reason Napster was a problem for the music industry. This isn’t about access. It’s about money. Publishers want to make sure they make money from every copy of anything that is distributed. Right now, no assurance exists. When it does – they’ll sell books to libraries. The focus should be on finding a way to make that happen. I’ve often said we need someone to do what Steve Jobs did with iTunes. He found a way for the music industry to still make money, but allow for digital distribution. Where is that person for eBooks? Who can make the publishers buy in to that notion? Answering those questions, finding that person… that solves the problem.

    • Dennis Reynolds says:

      This is kind of a poor analogy. iTunes isn’t selling to libraries, it’s selling to individuals. Music is still being copied and shared. So are videos. When people can easily copy their ebooks, then copying and sharing will also take place in the ebook publishing arena. And that’s probably already happening.

  6. 3M is making in-roads into competing with Overdrive. Penguin pulled out of Overdrive but is now back in working with 3M. Plus there is no fear that 3M will be absorbed by Amazon as what could happen to Overdrive.

    It is still early in the eBooks for libraries game and I am optimistic competition will help libraries get what they want.

  7. Pat, once again, you’ve nailed this issue! Your well outlined piece is a call to arms– circulation of print materials will continue to decline. While lifelong learning, career and job training, and homework help are all huge aspects of the public library’s mission, someone needs to stand up and drive the discussion around public access. If not, we will face the consequences of a marketplace that precludes library participation. Thanks for all your efforts to galvanize and engage in this important discussion.

  8. It’s long overdue for a senior member of the public library community to speak so clearly about the issues. This isn’t “a problem” for libraries. This is a serious crisis.

    The current trajectory of industry developments indicates that lower income people will be allowed to walk over to their branch libraries (during the ever-diminishing hours they’re open) to borrow physical books, while everyone else buys ebooks from Amazon to read on their fancy new tablets. The well-off will stream video through Netflix on crisp color screens; everyone else will borrow scratched DVDs from the branch.

    What a future it will be!

  9. Very well stated so sign me-up! How can I help? Do we need to start a petition? How do we move forward? I’m clearly ready to get involved.

    • Vince Juliano says:

      You can start by getting your local library, library system, or other library organization to sign onto the ReadersFirst Coalition, as the Columbus Metropolitan Library and 177 other libraries or systems have already done. Go to to read a statement of principles on library eBook service to the public. The principles articulated there will sound familiar to most librarians who care about their responsibility to work for open, easy, and free access to reading materials.
      In addition, consider placing a moratorium on the purchase of eBooks from publishers who discriminate against libraries through outrageously inflated prices. The LION consortium in Connecticut took that step, along with several other U.S. and Canadian libraries. It may actually be having some effect. At least one publisher, who raised its eBook pricing to libraries by almost 300% a few months ago, has recently announced new “bargain” prices for “select” titles. Maybe, if some of these publishers feel more heat from the library community as a whole, the number of discounted “select” titles will grow to include their entire catalogs.

    • Vince,

      Thanks for the action advice! I’ve signed-up both my library and the consortium my library is a part of on Next week my consortium is meeting to discuss ebooks and I’ll advocate for a moratorium on publishers with exorbitant prices.

      Is there a group producing literature that can be disseminated to patrons? I put out fliers in my library explaining why we couldn’t get more ebooks and most patrons were, rightfully, miffed.

  10. i wonder if this article should be sent as a letter or published in book seller or publisher journals.

  11. Tom Corbett says:

    What is most striking to me about this topic is how unimaginative publishers are being and how unwilling they are to compromise and find new solutions that promote reading outside of an analog world. For some, the idea of Amazon buying Overdrive is a nightmare. For me, it would be exciting because Amazon has shown a capacity to think creatively within new markets and to disrupt old ones (including our own). They also have the clout to take on obstinate publishers, which could result in real change.

    Moreover, Amazon’s business model is focused on access and distribution; publisher business models are focused on gate-keeping and content control. Which is the better model for libraries to support (and emulate) moving forward?

    • Joneser says:

      Amazon seems more intent on gatekeeping and content control than it does on access and distribution. There are also “obstinate publishers” who are getting tired of Amazon setting the rules.

    • Tom Corbett says:

      We’ll have to agree to disagree, Joneser. I know it is ludicrous to champion Amazon as an advocate for open access or even a separation of content from devices, but they have still shown much more agility and creativity in the digital reader marketplace than have publishers — by several leaps and bounds! It’s a good thing participants other than just the publishers can set at least a few rules in that market!

  12. I agree with commentator Ron above, this is a call-to-arms! This issue threatens the very business model of libraries as a well-funded destination for all citizens. It is analogous to transportation – the well-off drive their own cars, causing cities to leave a minimal, poorly-funded transit solution for lower-income people that lacks the robust vigor that could draw all as users. Your article helps the profession imagine what if public libraries become the content equivalent of that minimal transit system!
    It’s going to take lots of fight, but publishers and elected officials must honor that it is the public libraries, that help create the next generation of readers (future customers) and voters. No one cares like we do about making sure that happens. We can never let them forget that.

  13. Paula Sequeiros says:

    Dear Pat, I’ve been delighted to read this article. I you have a strong commitement with public service (that’s the ‘businees of public libraries right?) which is wonderful.
    Yet I’d like to stress a few points:
    1) public libraries are a modern historical reality born out of the modern state model of power, then closely tied to the improvement of education;
    2) eBooks are a technolgy that affords (I adhere to Andrew Feenbergs’ concept of technology) the the embedding of restrictions to reading in public libraries as we were used to conceive it, nowadays that power relations have changed and that all things public are under atack (as an European I have a very precise notion of this), eBooks may be used as trojan-horses to destroy the public library, to privatise reading even further, education is well spread, states and the ruling classes no longer need accessories to their education systems.
    3) reading in public libraries is seen by users themselves mostly as leisure, not as education, as many user studies have already demonstrated; public libraires should be proud advocates of leisure reading, as leisure is a dignifying, although un-productive, and basic activity to acheive… happiness.
    4) research and University libraries have begun fighting the privatisation of knowledge publishing long ago, and good results have been produced by a myriad of repositories all over the world – one important result was the lowering of prices for scholar journals sold by private publishers with the outcomes of (mostly) public funded research; dissemination has also grown and papers deposited there have a high probability of being cited.
    5) I do hope DPLA is a successful project and that no Trojan Horses are allowed in; this power relations field in not yet stabilized, readers and librarians are still able to defend their interests towards a future public library that remains solidly tied to public interests and human rights, such as freely reading in a public library.

  14. Diane Bronson says:

    What is wrong with this picture? Why do we (and publishers) insist on trying to fit a round peg (digital media) into the square hole of historical print books? Why is no one suggesting that ebooks be accessed on a pay-per-view basis, like movies or databases? This is such a common mechanism — especially in the library world — that I can’t for the life of me figure out why librarians are so wedded to the model of ownership and one-title, one-use-at-a-time. We don’t restrict database access to one user at a time! Comcast doesn’t restrict its movies to one user at a time! Why don’t publishers sell ACCESS to their ebooks instead of the ebooks themselves? Why are we librarians not asking for access, instead of ownership? Especially considering that libraries don’t really own ebooks anyway (licensing is not ownership).

    Freading is the only program our library has found that takes this viewpoint, which we find infinitely more practical, economical and user-friendly. Through Freading, our users have immediate and unrestricted access to over 20,000 ebooks from a small number of mid-level but quality publishers. And we didn’t spend hundreds of staff hours and thousands of dollars selecting an entirely new library collection that we can only HOPE is what people want. We pay per access, at a rate dependent on the book, varying from 50 cents to $2.00 per download. Because the publishers are small and their books are not bestsellers, our costs are currently very low.

    But even if they were high, isn’t this what we want? I’m hoping our costs for Freading skyrocket! Our goal as librarians should be ACCESS, not ownership! I’d much rather spend $20,000 or $40,000 or $100,000 a year knowing that its going for actual usage than equally as much to support a vendor platform and putative “ownership” of a collection, the use of which is unpredictable. With all due respect to the art and craft of selection (and that’s my job) I will be the first to say that every selector buys books nobody checks out.

    So why do we insist on perpetuating a system that has no guarantees when an option exists for giving every patron exactly what they want with virtually no work on our part?! It just boggles my mind that we are ignoring this opportunity to make our libraries more efficient and effective in giving our users what they want. Let’s go to publishers with a proposal that reflects the realities of the digital age AND gives everyone — publishers, librarians, and library users — a good deal. Yes, the devil will be in the details, but we are spending a hell of a lot of blood, sweat & tears trying to preserve a system that is crumbling beneath our feet. Let’s start using all that effort to start building a new future!

    OK, end of rant — go on with your lives.

  15. Joneser says:

    That retired Congressman has no idea what he’s talking about. Good thing he’s retired.

  16. Liz Calafiore says:

    Interesting proposal. Hope people pay attention and consider access versus ownership. People are used to paying per day to read new books in some areas, and most people use some sort of rental of movies.

  17. >On June 8, 2012, a group of public library leaders
    >met at CML to discuss options for determining a
    >strategy that will ensure public access to all
    >commercial digital content (ebooks, audiobooks, etc.).

    There is part of the problem. There are too many disjointed attempts to address the problem, and no good centralized one. I never heard of this gathering before now, and I would bet that most other librarians out there would say the same.

    ALA should be heading up this charge in a much, much more aggressive and coordinated manner. As usual, though, they are fairly worthless in this regard.

  18. The pay-per-access model appears to solve many issues. It also lends itself to a consolidation of efforts and resources.

    For example, imagine a scenario in which:
    1. Each state library negotiates with publishers (either as individual states or in collectives of states) towards a pay-per-access model for all the libraries in the state or region
    2. Each individual library has a link on their website to the state negotiated access point for all ebooks and media
    3. Each library is charged on a per-use basis for only the titles used by its card holders

    In this way, the contracts are negotiated on a state level and duplication of effort by individual libraries and library systems is eliminated. Each library only pays for what its card holders use and nothing more. Best of all, every citizen has access to the greatest number of titles at all times. If certain states have more usage and can leverage a better price per use, so be it.

    Just a few thoughts to ponder…

    • Tom Corbett says:

      There are already good business models out there that would facilitate something like what Ezra is suggesting (a pay per use model — one that hopefully facilitates a Just-In-Time, Patron Driven Acquisitions that is more about providing access rather than building collections). Take a look at EB Library’s service (EBL), for example, which provides a good balance between protecting both the creators of copyrighted works while expanding library services beyond the print paradigm. Keep in mind that this still requires some form of “lending-friendly” DRM to protect copyright holders and adequate “friction” for a robust, private marketplace. Oh, and it also requires large publishing houses willing to expand beyond the print paradigm and strive for workable solutions for authors, readers, libraries, and retailers.

    • Diane Bronson says:

      Ezra’s is a great model — and something that a lot of state libraries would probably love to jump on. At that level, ALA could realistically take a role in coordinating negotiations with publishers, or at least begin with the publishers’ association.

      It’s also the kind of large-scale initiative tailor-made for state and federal funding (for the initial underwriting) although the locals would pay their own access charges. Which is of course the rub. But just getting the ducks in a row (one duck being DRM) will be a massive undertaking and a good goal for the next few years. I’d love to see the library world coalesce behind a proposal like this one.

  19. Tom Corbett says:

    One important initiative that library leaders could undertake would be to devise a “lending-friendly” DRM model that isn’t managed by either Adobe or Amazon.

  20. When it comes to DRM management, it would make sense for the Library or Congress to take a lead role and implement a truly vendor-neutral DRM model applicable to, and specifically designed for libraries and library users. This would be a realistic goal for the ALA to get behind and rally their lobbyists in Washington.

  21. Diane,
    Interesting proposal. Hope people pay attention and consider access versus ownership. People are used to paying per day to read new books in some areas, and most people use some sort of rental of movies.