Publishers must stop playing games with eBook availability: Governments must act to ensure predictability

The Ancient of Days, William Blake - image of an old man (god) with a set of compasses, reaching down through the clouds
William Blake, the Ancient of Days

Libraries have a crucial role in ensuring the affordability of education and learning for all. In many disciplines much of this now comes in the form of eBooks. With the pandemic, climate emergency and the cost of living crisis, access to eBooks through public libraries is also increasingly popular.

The very essence of a library is to build and hold a collection for its patrons, and to do that, librarians need to be able to choose the eBooks they give access to. Yet in the majority of cases libraries no longer own the eBooks in their collections – they rent them. This brings with it numerous issues for libraries and authors –  just one being the fleeting nature of library collections. Titles are added in and removed often with no knowledge of the library who has subscribed to the collection. 

The removal of eBooks from platforms for which libraries have paid, and on which educators, researchers and students rely, entirely undermines the role of a library and a university as providers of knowledge. As the Authors Alliance have highlighted, it also damages authorship. These practices only reinforce the urgent argument for laws that offer certainty to libraries, authors, researchers and educators who are faced by ever more dysfunctional eBook markets.

While the specific case of Wiley’s removal and subsequent hasty reinstatement of nearly 1400 titles has been at the heart of much criticism of late, unfortunately this is by no means a phenomenon unique to them. Knowledge Rights 21 unreservedly condemns this now common practice across eBook markets

Publisher eBook offerings will only work when libraries – and the teachers, students, authors, researchers and members of the public who count on them – can make their own decisions as to what to purchase. This includes being sure that the content they have purchased will not disappear. As the Wiley debacle has highlighted, it is dangerous for information access regimes to be based solely on the discretion and whims of private, profit-driven actors. When perpetual guaranteed access is not possible, a library’s collection (and therefore society’s equitable access to knowledge) is built on sand. 

Libraries and the many knowledge ecosystems that exist around them need certainty in order to guarantee sustainable collection development and democratic access to information. It is time for governments to act.

We believe that there is no single solution to the eBook crisis and it requires interventions on multiple fronts:

  1. Reform to copyright law so that libraries can make a copy of a paper book or a consumer licensed eBook and lend on an owned to loaned ratio. This recommendation is based on a 2016 ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union, and will be particularly important for public libraries, historical materials, out of print works, instances where publishers refuse to license eBooks to libraries etc. 
  2. More funding for Open Educational Resources, eBooks etc to create openly licensed content. 
  3. Laws that mandate that eBooks written with public funds must be available open access. (see Knowledge Right 21 Secondary Publisher Right). 
  4. Legal deposit laws which guarantee that all published eBooks are collected by national libraries and as a minimum that remote access on a one-copy-one-user basis is possible. These libraries preserve the cultural memory of a nation – everybody should have equitable and democratic access to these digital collections.

Further Reading:

Knowledge Rights 21: Position Statements on eBooks and Secondary Publishing Rights

LIBER:  Draft Model Law for the Use of Publicly Funded Scholarly Publications

SPARC: Open Education

SPARC Europe: European Network of Open Education Librarians

ebookSOS: Campaign to Investigate the eBook Market

Library Futures: The Think Tank for the Future of Libraries

The Library Association of Ireland / Cumann Leabharlann na hÉireann: eBookSoS Campaign In Ireland

18 October 2022