As publishers lean more heavily on digital copies as a revenue source, libraries find themselves owning less and less of their collections. Unlike print books, digital copies come with a laundry list of restrictions, and self-destruct after a set time or number of lends -- forcing the library to purchase the ebook a second, or third, or fourth time if they wish to keep the title in stock. This is because libraries must license digital copies through contractual agreements with powerful publishers, which often force them to pay three to five times the amount that consumers pay, for short-term access to the work. Sometimes library patrons simply lose access to materials as they become unaffordable.
Increasingly, libraries have begun making and lending out digital versions of physical works in their collections -- a practice called Controlled Digital Lending, or CDL. CDL is a powerful tool to bridge the gap between print and electronic resources. CDL addresses the “20th Century Book Problem” where books published in the 20th century are generally unavailable in digital format, and it can also help to combat the spread of misinformation online. Under CDL, a digital copy of a physical book can only be read and used by one person at a time. Only one person can “borrow” an electronic book at once, and while it is being lent electronically, the library takes the physical book out of circulation.
CDL allows libraries to reach their patrons even when those patrons can’t make it to the physical library -- a problem that’s been more prevalent than ever during the pandemic. Without programs like this, library patrons are prevented from accessing a world of content and information -- and low-income, rural, and other marginalized communities are hit the hardest.
The switch to digital copies shouldn’t leave libraries behind, and shouldn’t make libraries spend more and more just to get the same access to works they have always enjoyed. We need legislation that ensures that libraries are free to buy ebooks and other electronic materials and lend them out, just as they can with physical media. This would allow libraries to continue functioning as they always have, but with a necessary update for today’s needs and technology, so they can meet their mission of making books available for all.
Image credit: Tina Franklin