Addressing eContent Issues in Times of Crisis | Opinion

As public libraries do more and more in times of crisis to fill gaps in our social safety net, it is time to rethink how publishers and content providers relate and do business with public libraries and their customers. How can those relationships be retooled and reimagined to provide outcomes that are more beneficial for all?

Kelvin WatsonFor most of us, March 2020 marked the beginning of a new normal. Social distancing changed the way we did everything, including how consumersincluding library customersaccessed content, moving farther from brick-and-mortar delivery methods to an all-electronic approach.

March 2020 is also when publishing giant Macmillan announced it was abandoning a recently instituted and controversial embargo. Good news, for sure – but for public libraries and the millions of customers who depend on libraries for access to ebooks and other electronic materials, is it enough?

More importantly, as public libraries do more and more in times of crisis to fill gaps in our social safety net, it is time to rethink how publishers and content providers relate and do business with public libraries and their customers. How can those relationships be retooled and reimagined to provide outcomes that are more beneficial for all? Going forward, what will an equitable distribution of electronic media/content for libraries and library customers look like?


In the best of times, the library is the only point of access for ebooks and audiobooks for some readers. In the worst of timessuch as right nowebooks, audiobooks and other digital materials are the only way for anyone to safely access free reading, reference, and research materials. With printed books and magazines tucked away in locked libraries, the public library’s digital collection has become the world’s virtual bookshelf.

Students who once picked up essential textbooks in the classroom are checking out necessary ebooks for school by downloading them from their libraries. An uncertain economy and rising unemployment has consumers tightening their belts and reducing purchases, including hardcover books. Bookstore sales have already declined almost 3 percent from February 2019 to February 2020, even before the impact of the new coronavirus, and a Publisher’s Weekly survey of about 30 independent bookstores showed sales in March 2020 fell an average of 9.4 percent compared with the previous March, and 6.5 percent from February 2020.


Meanwhile, libraries in North America are experiencing a surge in their number of ebook and audiobook loans. In the first week of April, 10.1 million digital books were borrowed from public libraries worldwide via Libby, according to statistics from Overdrive, the company behind Libby, which represents a nearly 30 percent increase compared with the same week last year.

At Broward County Library, a full-scale, seven-day-a-week marketing campaign to promote the use of electronic sources has led to a dramatic uptick in usage. The results included a 63 percent increase in usage of Hoopla (which also includes streaming video content) from mid-February (9,772) to mid-March 2020 (15,934), with new users increasing 253 percent from February to March. Additionally, Overdrive ebooks and audiobooks checkouts increased 22 percent from March 2019 to March 2020.

Feedback via customer emails sent in April shows that library users are utilizing and appreciating e-content more than ever:

“Just a note to say “THANK YOU” to you and your staff.  Downloading ebooks has kept me sane.”

“This is awesome! Thank you so much. I feel so happy and grateful that you all are looking out for single moms like myself and others that may appreciate these online services. Tons of respect from the bottom of my heart.”

“Thanks for all the online services. I have been enjoying ebooks for a long time but am a new fan of Freegal. Wasn't aware of this until recently. It's excellent.”

Obviously, a lot has changed since the issues of ebook embargos first emerged, including how, where, when and at what price consumers access content. The surge in usage is prompting ebook and digital content providers to offer discounts and deals of all types that range from “bonus borrow” selections that don’t count against a borrower’s monthly limits to rollbacks on restrictive policies like Macmillan’s embargo.

Historically, publishers have set the terms and conditions of libraries’ usage of their content; today, as we see consumer sales of physical books fall, libraries are now perceived as valued customers worthy of special promotions and price cuts.

The question to ask now is how to ensure this new perception continues to influence the relationship between publishers and libraries, post-pandemic. When COVID-19 stay-in-place restrictions are removed, will the publishers and library vendors be as generous and willing to try new models as they are during this crisis? Or will they revert to previous form and make licensing terms and prices even more difficult to meet?

Libraries should remain steadfast in doing what benefits their customers. An increasing preference for digital content will continue even after stay-at-home, shelter-in-place, and physical distancing restrictions are lifted. If we cannot find ways to make our digital collections robust and lasting, including a return to perpetual access as an option, libraries will never be able to meet an ever-increasing demand and provide equity to the communities we serve.


This is a powerful moment for public libraries, a juncture where there is an opportunity to evaluate and require equity in terms of the three components necessary for a successful library experience: access, discovery and delivery. As consumer sales of ebooks drop and sales to libraries and usage by library customers increases, public libraries are in a position to advocate for digital equality.

This is the moment for public institutions to call upon publishers to increase and improve access to new and exciting e-content to our customers, and to be fair in their pricing and deliver methods, not just now, but from now on. Libraries must require publishers to offer new ways for our customers and community to discover the informational, educational, and recreational resources public libraries provide, whether printed, online or virtual.

As a united group of public service institutions, libraries must ask publishing leaders to join us in creating a model that calls for open accessibility and equity not just some of the time and not just for some of the people, but for everyone, all of the time, under any conditions, in any market, as a matter of industry practice.

While better models are developed, perhaps through legislative advocacy, we can make immediate improvements now, recognizing authors’ needs to be compensated in a time when sales are down and other avenues, such as book tours, are closed. The Big Five publishers should reinstate the option for a perpetual access license. Such a license might be offered at a higher than a metered model but is essential for libraries to build long-term collections as rich as what we offer in print.

The time-based model, with licenses expiring in two years, often results in a very high cost-per-use and discourages the licensing of many titles. It should be abandoned for a circulation-based model, with licenses expiring only after a set number of check-outs have occurred. During the COVID-19 crisis, Penguin Random House is offering licenses on audiobooks in both perpetual and metered models. We salute this practice: it shows that options for variable licenses can be offered. As a gesture of their willingness to work with one of their main customersperhaps their biggest one—we ask that the Big Five (and other publishers) immediately make these licensing changes, ideally offering both the metered and perpetual options at once.

Arguments that library vendors cannot adapt to these options or that ONIX will not support this change have been proven to be wrong. This change would be a vital step in working together to get content to readers, increasing visibility and ultimately consumer sales, while allowing libraries to develop their best collections.

Kelvin Watson is the Director of Broward County Library, FL; director-at-large of the Public Library Association; past President of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association; and is an elected member of the Book Industry Study Group’s Board of Directors.

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