E-reading is on the rise, according to a January report by the Pew Internet project. Fully 50 percent of adults own a tablet or e-reader, and two out of five public libraries lend e-readers. But while libraries own their e-readers, the same can’t be said of the digital books on their virtual shelves. As a result, library patrons face long wait times to borrow what are essentially collections of bits and bytes.
Most local libraries purchase licensing agreements to e-books through a distributor. The purchasing agreements typically stipulate a time frame or number of uses. For example, a book may only be loaned out 26 times or for one year before it disappears from the library’s catalog. Often, the prices for these books are unreasonably high, according to James LaRue, CEO of LaRue Associates and former director of the Douglas County Library outside of Denver, Colo.
For a new bestseller, “You can buy [the print edition] as a consumer for $12.99, you can buy it for $9.99 as an e-book, but [publishers] are charging libraries for $84 for that book and only one person can use it at a time,” said LaRue.
For consumers, the hidden relationship between library and publisher is having a direct impact on access to materials. Avid reader Hilary Kennedy uses her local Washington, D.C. library to borrow e-books. “The wait list [for e-books] is ridiculously frustrating, because often the queue is 142 people long. It doesn’t make sense, because it’s a virtual book and the technology is there to distribute it to everyone,” she said. Moreover, it’s “aggravating when the library doesn’t have the e-book at all,” she said.