Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Public libraries fight publisher's restrictions on e-books and audio downloads

Seattle Public Library in downtown Seattle.
Shauna Sowersby
Seattle Public Library in downtown Seattle.

Public libraries are facing a digital content crisis because publishers are changing the licenses for downloadable audio and e-books. Librarians say the result will be fewer titles to choose from and longer wait times for library patrons. They say the new restrictions are a blow to the idea of equal and open access.

Macmillan Publishers is one of the companies placing new restrictions on libraries. Beginning in November, it will only allow libraries to purchase one digital copy of new books. Once a release has been on the market for eight weeks, libraries can purchase additional copies.

The Seattle Public Library joined others across the country in denouncing the move. Marcellus Turner, Seattle Public Library’s chief librarian, says embargoes like this make it more difficult to respond to community needs.

“A critical way The Seattle Public Library fulfills our mission of providing universal access to information and ideas is through e-books,” Turner wrote in a news release. He said the policy would affect all patrons, but “especially those with limited resources.”

Demand for digital content is on the rise. Nearly 3 million e-books and e-audiobooks were circulated in Seattle last year. Andrew Harbison, the Seattle Public Library assistant director of collections and access, said contrary to a common misperception, e-books and e-audiobooks are substantially more expensive for the library than hardcover books.

He says they are typically “double the cost.” One reason is that, unlike the hardcover book, publishers will license digital books for a limited period of time or for a limited number of check-outs. And, Harbison says, the various contracts with publishers for digital content are complex and have to be managed.

With costs going up for digital content and with even more restrictions being placed on libraries by publishers, Harbison said the Seattle Public Library is looking at its options. He said one solution may be to buy more hard cover copies to make up for the loss of digital books.

Library systems across the country and the American Library Association are publicly objecting to the changes to digital licenses. They’ve launched a social media campaign using the hashtag #EbooksforAll. 

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.