A Bold Call for an Investigation into the Academic e-book Publishing Industry – Part 2

#ebooksos campaign

In a new series of interviews with librarians, copyright experts, and colleagues in the wider field of advocacy for equitable access to knowledge, Knowledge Rights 21 explores the library landscape, focussing here on academic and public libraries’ constant struggle with ebooks, restrictive licensing, technological protection measures that undermine copyright exceptions, and the extremely high cost of digital lending.

Three UK academic librarians, Caroline Ball, University of Derby, Rachel Bickley, London Metropolitan University and Yohanna Anderson, University of Gloucestershire, co-founded the now internationally renowned #ebooksos campaign some 18 months ago. In this second part of their interview, Knowledge Rights 21 explores what you need to persevere, what’s ahead and which other countries are starting with their own initiatives. 

KR21: How is the debate about e-books different now from a year ago? 

Caroline: “I think in some ways the debate hasn’t changed at all. Librarians have always been aware of the challenges posed by e-books, the unavailability, the restrictions, the prices. The pandemic brought these issues to a new level of urgency but it didn’t create them. What is different is people’s awareness of these issues, and I like to think the campaign can take a bit of credit for that!” 

KR21: What skills have proven most useful? 

Caroline: “Persistence, stubbornness and Twitter!” 

Rachel: “All of the above. Plus I think we have all had to really exercise effective communication skills. The world of academic e-books is a complicated and confusing one (even for us sometimes!) and so we’ve had to find ways to get the issues across clearly to people who aren’t librarians. ” 

KR21: What have you learnt as part of the process? 

Caroline: “The difference individuals can make if they step up. The campaign has really taken off in a way none of us expected, and I think we could achieve so much more if we had the real active and vocal support of our sector bodies and institutions. 

“Without wanting to be too controversial I also think it has highlighted a real failure of leadership and vision in UK sector bodies, across academic, public, research, health sectors, and how enmeshed the publishers are in so much of what we do. I think there’s been a real reluctance to ‘rock the boat’, to upset relations  – even now the default position is ‘let’s talk, let’s negotiate’, which is laudable enough, but if it worked we wouldn’t have a need for a campaign like this! The reality is these publishers are big enough, rich enough and powerful enough to have libraries in a position of weakness, and the times when we have tried to negotiate and push back have been unsuccessful. No industry is going to voluntarily amend a highly profitable practice unless forced to, and asking nicely won’t work.” 

Rachel: “Yes, it has been disappointing and frustrating at times to witness these sector bodies being reluctant to take action. If the people who are on the ground working in libraries are telling you there is a problem, then as a leader you should be listening.” 

Campaign update #ebooksos
Image from campaign update e#booksos video

KR21: Can you see similar efforts taking place in other countries? 

Caroline: “They already are. The Library Association of Ireland has  picked up the ebookSOS baton and they are doing great things over there. It’s interesting, in a way, because the drive in Ireland seems very much directed from the top. Here in the UK it’s been much more grassroots and getting the sector bodies on board has been a real challenge. 

“In America a number of states are trying to introduce legislation around e-books and libraries – mostly from a public library perspective. Still, any legislation to that effect will also benefit academic libraries. But they are getting a lot of pushback from publishers, so I don’t think it will be easy. There has been the beginnings of a Senate financial investigation as well, which is interesting.” 

Rachel: “In November 2021 we presented at a Special Libraries Association (SLA) webinar on the progress of the campaign. There were a number of attendees present from other European countries such as the Netherlands, who were very interested to hear about how we went about our campaign and what tips we could offer if they wanted to something similar. It is most definitely a global issue!” 

Caroline: “The mailing list that we set up for discussion and announcements about the campaign also has members from around 15 different countries, which again highlights how international a concern this is.” 

6 April 2022