Mississauga Libraries Still Fighting for Access to Popular eBooks

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While some age-old institutions have become less relevant over the years, libraries have stood the test of time by offering residents a place to enjoy quiet study and the latest titles in a variety of formats.  

Technology has been a game-changer and disrupter in an overwhelming number of industries, and while some institutions have struggled to keep pace, libraries have actually managed to navigate changing visitor demands with aplomb.

But while the Mississauga Library System has adapted--in fact, the Central Library alone (which is slated to undergo a $42 million renovation) offers 3D printing, a newcomers centre for new Canadians, a career centre and the Open Window Hub for residents struggling with homelessness--there’s one area where local libraries are struggling: obtaining popular eBooks.

“Libraries work together to ensure that they are providing access to content that people want and that the formats are aligned with their needs in terms of accessibility, ease of use and availability,” Jennifer Stirling, manager, digital library services and collections, told insauga.com in early 2019.

“We’ve changed the format to ensure our content is available 24/7 in the form people want, and we’ve seen demand for eBooks and audiobooks and we’re working to try to share access for libraries. This is a struggle because it’s a new platform and it’s changed the publishing world.”

Because e-books are relatively new terrain for publishers, libraries are having difficulty purchasing (at affordable prices, in many cases) titles and keeping them in stock.

And it looks like some major publishers are making it even more difficult for libraries to obtain popular eBooks. 

The Canadian Urban Libraries Council (CULC) recently released a statement denouncing the new library eBook lending model announced by Macmillan Publishers. 

Under the new model, libraries will only be able to purchase a single digital copy of any new title when it is released for sale to the public and will have to wait eight weeks before they are able to buy any additional copies.

The CULC says that in a recent letter to creators, Macmillan indicated that library lending was "cannibalizing sales" and that "45 per cent of the ebook reads in the US are now being borrowed for free from libraries."

The CULC has called this claim fundamentally untrue, arguing that libraries purchase copies of licenses for their users to access at a premium, which is often three to four times the cost of a retail copy.

"These premium prices are ultimately being paid by Canadian library users, whose taxes fund libraries. These licenses can only be used by one user at a time, mirroring the lending of physical materials," the CULC said in a statement. 

The organization also disputes Macmillan's claim that the growth in library eBook use is driven by "seamless delivery." 

"The delivery of ebooks to library users is far from seamless - restrictive lending models often mean that users must sit on waiting lists for several months. Moreover, CULC calls on Macmillan to share data to support its claim that there has been 'active marketing by various parties to turn purchasers into borrowers' and that library apps exist that allow for borrowing from libraries in different states and countries," the organization wrote. 

The CULC says that while libraries have advocated for a dual pricing model for many years, "this new lending model is absolutely the wrong approach." 

The organization argues that the inability to access enough copies to satisfy demand for new titles will severely limit accessibility and impact the ability of libraries to provide timely content to Canadians.

"Macmillan Publishers' new model for library ebook lending will make it difficult for libraries to fulfill our central mission: ensuring access to information for all. Limiting access to new titles for libraries means limiting access for patrons most dependent on libraries," said American Library Association President Wanda Brown in a statement.

"When a library serving many thousands has only a single copy of a new title in ebook format, it's the library - not the publisher - that feels the heat. It's the local library that's perceived as being unresponsive to community needs."

The CULC argues that policies surrounding eBook availability hurt every library's core mandate to serve readers. 

"Macmillan's actions are directly contrary to the democratic role of public libraries. Access to digital content is imperative for all members of Canadian society, especially those who have low literacy or other restrictions that limit their ability to read materials in traditional formats," said Pilar Martinez, chair of CULC/CBUC, in a statement. 

"Restrictive access and pricing models also negatively impact those who cannot afford to purchase digital content."

The CULC says recent research on the Canadian Book Buyer from BookNet indicates that library users are more likely than non-library users to purchase books. 

"Research from The Panorama Project demonstrates that library promotion has a significant positive impact on retail sales. For print books, which are protected by copyright law from library embargoes, libraries have a long history of serving as a place of discovery where readers can find new content and authors. Digital content should be no different," CULC said. 

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