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Electronic book price increase a low blow to public libraries

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St. Albert Public Library Boiard Chair Kelly Aisenstat

ST. ALBERT, Alberta

Despite their obvious value to society, it goes without saying that public libraries are under assault in this wretched era of right-wing governments dedicated to the proposition public services should be shrunk to the point they can be drowned in a bathtub.

Cherry-picking supporters of this point of view nowadays argue that we hardly need libraries since we have the wonders of Google -- which is a little like arguing that we no longer need a fire department seeing as we all have running water.

Last year, the public library system in Camden, New Jersey, which was once the home of Walt Whitman, came this close to closing permanently for lack of funds that were needed more urgently for foreign invasions, high-tech military aircraft and tax reductions for the super rich.

Camden's libraries earned a respite, thank goodness, but it is only a matter of time before we see the same sort of thing happening elsewhere on this continent, including on this side what was once the world's longest undefended border.

So it is a particularly low blow when publicly supported libraries also fall victim to predatory practices by people who ought to know better, the publishers of books who profit enormously from purchases made by these tremendously valuable and increasingly fragile public institutions.

This happened recently when multinational publishing giant HarperCollins arbitrarily and suddenly raised the cost of electronic books by imposing a 26-loan limit on electronic books. The publisher's policy announced in March -- which you can bet is being watched carefully by other publishers -- forces libraries to re-purchase electronic books at full cost after they have been loaned to just 26 library patrons. If there are not repurchased, the books' licenses expire, which is a bloodless way of saying they electronically self-destruct.

By comparison, when cared for properly, conventional hard-cover books can be loaned over and over again hundreds of times. Since no one seems to know how HarperCollins came up with its 26-loan limit -- they certainly didn't bother communicating it to North American public libraries -- it's reasonable to assume that it's just another cash grab by a corporation that has seen a new way to make taxpayers pad its bottom line.

Now, electronic books are popular with library patrons as they are with many other readers for obvious reasons -- the format is convenient for the reader on the road who is equipped with the appropriate technology. So library patrons are nowadays asking to borrow e-books, and public libraries are trying their best to respond to their demand.

What library patrons may not know is that electronic books, even before HarperCollings imposed its unreasonable and expensive lending limit, can be as costly or more so to buy and lend as are conventional books. So don't imagine, if you are a library user, that there are no costs associated with e-books, just because they don't have to be stored on a physical shelf. That said, it is hard to believe that they cost their publisher as much to produce and distribute.

What to do about this? Well, the small community library in the Edmonton bedroom suburb of St. Albert has responded by taking the simple step of saying it won't buy any more electronic books from HarperCollins, at least until the company consults with the library community and collaboratively comes up with a fairer solution to the corporation's need to post a reasonable profit for its efforts.

A couple of other Canadian public libraries have done the same thing, but more out of desperation, one suspects, than any effort to attract the attention of a major publishing company.

OK, I have to pause here for a moment of full disclosure. I'm a trustee on the St. Albert Public Library Board, and I took part in the discussions that led to this decision, which I fully support.

Now, big deal, you may think. What difference can one crowded little library in a far-away suburb make? Well, not much on its own, of course, but from a little acorn grows the mighty oak. "We recognize that we are a small library and that alone our decision will have little impact on this large multinational company," Board Chair Kelly Aisenstat said in a statement released yesterday. "However, we are encouraging other libraries throughout North America to join us in this decision to no longer purchase eBooks from HarperCollins."

"We believe that this movement can grow and can result in solutions that are fair to both publishing companies and public libraries," Mr. Aisenstat explained. "We will start by speaking with libraries throughout the Capital Region and elsewhere in Alberta and urging them to respond to HarperCollins in the same way we have."

"This lending limit shows a troubling lack of support by HarperCollins for public libraries," he said. "We think HarperCollins is being a poor corporate citizen by arbitrarily imposing this limit and we urge them to reconsider and come up with a more reasonable approach."

Aisenstat also argued that HarperCollins has made a boneheaded marketing decision, since libraries develop readers and readers buy books. "In the evolving book marketplace, libraries continue to play a crucial role in bringing authors, publishers and readers together. The e-book loan limit threatens that relationship."

"It is in the interests of everyone involved to let HarperCollins know there is a limit to what we can pay, and that they need to consult the library community when imposing major price increases," Aisenstat concluded.

The call not to buy HarperCollins e-books is certainly not a book boycott -- since it takes aim at one format and one publisher in hopes of ending a harmful business practice.

Nor is it an attack on authors, who are unlikely to derive much additional income from HarperCollins efforts to improve its corporate bottom line at the expensive of taxpayers and public library patrons. Indeed, in Canada, many authors benefit from the Canadian Public Lending Rights Commission, which distributes payments to authors whose books are found in public libraries and which, in the opinion of this published author, is the greatest thing since sliced toast!

What it is, is a great example of community activism that has a chance to achieve bigger changes in more than one community for the benefit of everyone by holding a corporation responsible for its actions.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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