The King County Library System (KCLS), Timberland Regional Library (TRL), and Washington Digital Library Consortium (WDLC) together provide e-books and digital audiobooks to 2.8 million people, roughly 37% of all Washingtonians. We staff 122 locations, from Amanda Park in the Olympic National Forest, to urban Bellevue, to the farmland of Walla Walla County. Collectively, we license thousands of e-books from Macmillan. But we have chosen not to purchase any new licenses for Macmillan e-books until the publisher drops its two-month embargo on new release titles. Here’s why.
The first reason is equity. In the state of Washington, 46% of school children qualify for reduced-price or free lunch. Families who cannot afford lunch for their children do not choose to borrow e-books because the experience is “frictionless.” They do, however, pay their share of the property taxes that fund our public library systems, which allows us to purchase e-book licenses on their behalf.
We see e-books in libraries as a win-win: for readers who cannot afford $14.99 for a single new release e-book, and for publishers, like Macmillan, who can generate revenue from readers who otherwise could not buy books at all. And while Macmillan’s e-book embargo aims to squeeze a few more sales out of frustrated library users, it unfairly disadvantages e-book readers who use the library out of need. Equal access to information regardless of ability to pay is foundational to a democratic society and is why public libraries exist. So, we cannot in good conscience support terms that include such inequity.
To many librarians, a boycott may seem counter-intuitive as it will in practice prevent patrons from accessing some Macmillan books from the library. We do not take this decision lightly, and we agree that librarians should support access. Unfortunately, the choice not to boycott also impedes patron access. If we simply capitulate, we effectively communicate to other publishers that embargoes are acceptable. If there is any chance of restoring equitable access in the long term by limiting it now in the short term, we believe that is a better path than accepting inequitable access as a new normal in the digital realm.
At the same time, the boycott enables us to have positive discussions about access with patrons who want Macmillan e-books. Rather than saying ‘we’re sorry,’ our staff can now say ‘we are advocating for you and our community.’ We can explain to them that we are doing our best to be good stewards of their tax money. And, our patrons are with us. Following the WDLC boycott of Blackstone this summer, following that company's exclusive deal with Amazon, not one of our 45 member libraries reported negative feedback from patrons.
Some librarians, too, might believe that an eight-week embargo is no less harmful than other restrictions we have accepted on e-books from publishers. But we think an embargo sets a troubling precedent that, if followed by others, would give publishers unprecedented control over basic access in public libraries. Currently, libraries have ways to enable e-book access despite expiration dates and high prices. But there is nothing we can do about a blanket policy that forces every e-book reader to wait eight extra weeks for library access. As Lisa Rosenblum, Executive Director of KCLS, has observed, to accept such a restriction would "profoundly change the public library."
The ALA’s valuable legislative advocacy efforts are much appreciated, and are working to combat policies like Macmillan's embargo. But we fear that before those efforts start to bear fruit, embargoes and exclusive content restrictions could become more common. And unlike in the print market, libraries have no right to access e-book licenses, and no power to negotiate prices or license terms. If we want terms that are fair, we must draw the line where we believe the terms are unreasonable. And if we do not draw the line here, on basic access, a core library value, then where?
We had of course hoped that ALA’s #ebooksforall PR campaign and the many letters, resolutions, and news articles in protest would induce Macmillan to reconsider its embargo. But Macmillan CEO John Sargent’s October 29 letter to librarians suggests that the publisher has no plans to do so at this point. Thus, we believe it is time to show as well as tell publishers that we will not pay for a service that is fundamentally inequitable.
We know that three library systems in Washington alone do not have enough financial leverage to induce Macmillan to drop the embargo. But we are heartened that many other libraries have already made similar decisions. And we believe that a collective effort to emphasizes libraries’ considerable financial leverage is the fastest, if not the only way to take a stand for equity and restore access.
For libraries interested in knowing more, we have posted information here about our decision, including a “toolkit” of materials we use to communicate with patrons, staff, and stakeholders. And if you have questions, please contact us and we will be happy to follow up with you.
Carmi Parker is a librarian and ILS administrator for the Whatcom County Library System. This editorial was undertaken on behalf of and with contributions from librarians at the King County Library System, headquartered in Issaquah, WA, serving 1.5 million residents; the Timberland Regional Library serves 500,000 residents in five Southwest Washington counties; and the Washington Digital Library Consortium, which consists of 45 libraries across Washington State, serving 825,000 residents.