We are very concerned about the recent announcement by the Publishers Association regarding the availability of ebooks in public libraries. The decision to limit access to those physically able to visit the library, with a mobile device suitable for reading ebooks, is potentially catastrophic for ebook provision in public libraries.
Not only does this threaten a service that has proven to be immensely popular with library users, it undermines the effort by libraries to reach out to housebound borrowers, the disabled and those living in remote areas far from their nearest public library. It also further undermines efforts to reposition libraries and encourage literacy in the digital age, an age where people increasingly question the need for libraries and librarians. A policy such as this seriously inhibits the library service from adapting to current realities and potentially threatens the entire service.
Furthermore, it restricts efforts to provide a 24/7 library service fit for the 21st century. The delivery of remote ebook access has been a highly successful initiative, with many services seeing increased demand, including the return of those who had ceased using the library service. The increased demand for ebooks should be seen as an opportunity for publishers, not a threat.
Whilst we understand the concerns of publishers, we believe that the benefits of equitable access far outweigh the concerns over isolated incidents of unauthorised usage, or indeed concerns about the impact on publisher’s profits. We believe very strongly in free and equal access to information for all. The proposed restrictions seriously jeopardise these principles and reinforce unequal access to information resources, creating a growing digital divide between those with access and those without. Such a division goes against the very spirit of a universal public library service.
In a time of threatened cuts to public services, we need champions for equal access to information more than ever. Consequently, we urge the Publishers Association to rethink their decision and work with libraries and other agencies to ensure that public libraries can continue to offer a service that meets the needs of their users.
The Publishers Association and relevant public library bodies need to reach a proper compromise, in the interest of the public, library services and publishers. It is beneficial to all stakeholders for public libraries to offer ebooks in the same way as other digital resources such as databases – through remote access. It is counterintuitive and counterproductive for access to digital resources to be restricted and accessible only through physical library services.