Ebooks and Digital Content

Ebooks and Digital Content

America’s libraries are committed to promoting literacy and a love of reading with diverse collections, programs and services for all ages. Downloadable content and eBooks are often many readers' front door to accessing material at their local library.

In 2019, one publisher announced it would limit readers’ access to new eBook titles through their libraries.

Macmillan Publishers decided it would allow libraries — matter the size of their city or town — to purchase only one copy of each new eBook title for the first eight weeks after a book’s release.

Before the embargo was slated to take effect in 2019, ALA collected 160,000 signatures from readers who urged Macmillan not to go through with their plan. We delivered these signatures in-person to CEO John Sargent, but Macmillan's policy remained unchanged. Readers have been persistent in their opposition. Signatures on our petition eventually increased to more than a quarter of a million.

On March 17, 2020, Macmillan suddenly reversed its embargo on eBook sales to libraries, acknowledging the impact of COVID-19. Macmillan’s return to its original lending terms signaled a new starting point for all publishers to consider how they can work with libraries to ensure — and expand — access for all readers.

Why are e-books treated differently than print books?

Print books are purchased as physical copies that the library owns.  Rights holders typically license—rather than sell—access to digital resources.

Digital music and online journals represent examples of this shift from the last few decades; e-books are the latest form of content to make this transition. As licenses are contracts, libraries receive the rights articulated in the agreements. The usual e-book license with a publisher or distributor often constrains or altogether prohibits libraries from archiving and preserving content, making accommodations for people with disabilities, ensuring patron privacy, receiving donations of e-books, or selling e-books that libraries do not wish to retain.

Why does library lending matter when so many people are able to buy what they want?

America’s libraries have always provided unfettered, no-fee access to reading materials (no matter the format), which fosters educational opportunity for all. To deny library patrons access to e-books that are available to consumers—and which libraries are eager to purchase or license on their behalf—is discriminatory.  Society benefits from library book lending because it:

  • encourages experimentation with new authors, topics, and genres. Library lending promotes literacy, creativity, and innovation—all critical for being competitive in the global knowledge economy. This experimentation also stimulates the market of books.
  • provides access to books to people who cannot afford to purchase them. Access to books should be available to everyone regardless of financial or other special circumstances.
  • promotes substantive pursuits that necessitate access to diverse materials, including those that may not be popular bestsellers. Education, research and other projects may depend on access to tens, hundreds, or even thousands of books.
  • is complemented by library support for digital literacy. The technologies, formats, and systems associated with e-books are changing rapidly. Libraries help people develop the skills necessary to make efficient and effective use of e-books as a technology and service.
  • reflects library values that support our nation’s readers.  Libraries strive to ensure that personally identifiable reader information, along with reading activities, remain private.

What about authors? What do they think about selling e-books to libraries?

Libraries help authors through:

  • Exposure. Libraries help people find authors. Readers discover new authors, topics, and genres in our libraries. Libraries help authors get noticed: we host author events; we feature books at book clubs; and we spotlight titles on our websites.
  • Sales. Research shows that library loans encourage people to buy books. Additionally, many libraries provide an option for people to click and “buy-it-now” from our websites.
  • Respect. Libraries honor authors’ work. We protect copyright, and we pay for what we use. We want authors to keep writing, and make a living at it.
  • Love of reading. Libraries help grow readers – and writers.
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