Before Sarah Adler moved to Maryland last week, she used library cards from her Washington, DC, home and neighboring counties in Virginia and Maryland to read books online. The Libby app, a slick and easy-to-use service from the company OverDrive, gave her access to millions of titles. When she moved, she picked up another card, and access to another library’s e-collection, as well as a larger consortium that the library belongs to. She does almost all of her reading on her phone, through the app, catching a page or two between working on her novels and caring for her 2-year-old. With her husband also at home, she’s been reading more books, mostly historical romance and literature, during the pandemic. In 2020, she estimates, she has read 150 books.
Adler buys books “rarely,” she says, “which I feel bad about. As someone who hopes to be published one day, I feel bad not giving money to authors.”
Borrowers like Adler are driving publishers crazy. After the pandemic closed many libraries’ physical branches this spring, checkouts of ebooks are up 52 percent from the same period last year, according to OverDrive, which partners with 50,000 libraries worldwide. Hoopla, another service that connects libraries to publishers, says 439 library systems in the US and Canada have joined since March, boosting its membership by 20 percent.
Some public libraries, new to digital collections, delight in exposing their readers to a new kind of reading. The library in Archer City, Texas, population 9,000, received a grant to join OverDrive this summer. The new ebook collection “has really been wonderful,” says library director Gretchen Abernathy-Kuck. “So much of the last few months has been stressful and negative.” The ebooks are “something positive. It was something new.”
More expensive ebooks
But the surging popularity of library ebooks also has heightened longstanding tensions between publishers, who fear that digital borrowing eats into their sales, and public librarians, who are trying to serve their communities during a once-in-a-generation crisis. Since 2011, the industry’s big-five publishers—Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan—have limited library lending of ebooks, either by time—two years, for example—or number of checkouts—most often, 26 or 52 times. Readers can browse, download, join waiting lists for, and return digital library books from the comfort of their home, and the books are automatically removed from their devices at the end of the lending period.
The result: Libraries typically pay between $20 and $65 per copy—an industry average of $40, according to one recent survey—compared with the $15 an individual might pay to buy the same ebook online. Instead of owning an ebook copy forever, librarians must decide at the end of the licensing term whether to renew.
The rising demand for digital materials has prompted some librarians to shift what they buy, even as they fear shrinking budgets amid the economic downturn. A recent survey of 400 librarians in the US and Canada found that one-third are spending less…
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