US Libraries Struggle to Pay for Costly Digital Books

    20 March 2024

    A growing number of American libraries are struggling to offer users digital versions of books because they cost a lot more than physical copies.

    Public demand for digital materials – including books called e-books as well as audiobooks – has been rising at U.S. libraries since the COVID-19 pandemic. But libraries have had difficulties meeting demand. This has forced many librarians to put users on waiting lists to borrow digital materials.

    Associated Press (AP) reporters recently spoke with library officials about the problem. One library they visited was in the community of West Haven, Connecticut. There, library workers noted big cost differences between physical and digital books.

    FILE - A woman stands among the bookshelves in the main reading room of The New York Public Library, December 14, 2004. (REUTERS/Mike Segar)
    FILE - A woman stands among the bookshelves in the main reading room of The New York Public Library, December 14, 2004. (REUTERS/Mike Segar)

    Most libraries are currently not permitted to buy e-books for a set price like individuals who purchase them online. This is because libraries offer the books to many people to borrow.

    One example is a work by bestselling writer Robin Cook. A physical, hard copy version of Cook's latest book costs the West Haven Library $18 to buy, the AP reports. But the cost of leasing a digital copy of the same book costs the library $55.

    Library officials told the AP lease prices are set by book publishers and generally cannot be re-negotiated. Such leasing agreements end after a limited time. Usually this means the lease lasts for up to two years or until it has been borrowed a set number of times. The cost of the leases is putting financial pressure on libraries.

    Officials at West Haven Library told the AP they do not have a large budget. But they said they had to spend more than $12,000 over the past three years to lease 276 additional digital books that were not available within a larger library network.

    The officials said 84 of those books were no longer available. And they noted that if the same $12,000 had been spent on paper books, the amount would have paid for about 800 copies.

    "Imagine if a playground was built at a school with tax dollars, only to be taken down after two years of use," librarian Colleen Bailie said at a recent public hearing on the issue.

    Publishers say their agreements with libraries are fair. They say that, while libraries pay a higher lease rate, they can make the books available to many users over time.

    Librarians in several states have been pushing for legislation to reduce high costs and restrictions on digital materials. This year, lawmakers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Illinois, Hawaii and New Hampshire all proposed bills aimed at lowering costs.

    But the measures have faced strong opposition from the publishing industry. The industry argues the proposals do not effectively respect intellectual property owned by copyright holders and would harm the publishing businesses.

    Libraries Online Inc. is a digitally connected library group operating in Connecticut. The organization says it currently spends about $20,000 a month on e-books for its 38 members. The cost of renewing expired e-books takes about 20 percent of the group's budget, e-book committee chair Rebecca Harlow told the AP.

    "If we replaced all of the content that has expired this year, the cost would exceed our entire annual budget for e-books," Harlow recently told lawmakers. "We have completely lost the ability to build a library collection," she added.

    In Illinois, a legislative proposal would cancel contracts between libraries and publishers that include certain rules. These include restricting a library's right to decide loan periods for licensed electronic material. Massachusetts and Connecticut are considering similar proposals.

    Last year, groups representing publishers, booksellers and writers formed a group – the Protect the Creative Economy Coalition – to oppose state measures.

    But Julie Holden, assistant library director for the Cranston Public Library in Rhode Island, said she thinks legislative action is needed. Otherwise, local librarians will continue to face financial pressure and will need to keep examining long lists of expiring digital leases to decide which ones can be replaced.

    Holden added, "Taxpayers who fund our public libraries deserve better. Way better."

    I'm Bryan Lynn.

    The Associated Press reported this story. Bryan Lynn adapted the report for VOA Learning English.


    Words in This Story

    library – n. a building containing a large collection of books and other materials that people can read and borrow

    lease – n. a legal agreement in which a person pays money in order to use something

    intellectual property – n. property such as inventions, research and media that carry rights for the owner to use, sell or gain from the property

    expire – v. when a document, agreement, etc. stops being valid

    exceed – v. to be more than a particular number or amount

    licensed –adj. having official, documented permission to do something

    deserve – v. to earn the right to do or have something