As libraries around the U.S. shutter their physical locations to battle the outbreak of Covid-19, they are rapidly transferring budget dollars to e-books, digital audio, and other digital media to serve their communities. And the shift could prove to be a watershed moment for a digital library market where the major publishers have so far proceeded cautiously—and sometimes contentiously.

“The spending on digital resources we’re seeing now is completely unprecedented,” said Brian Kenney, a PW columnist and director of the White Plains (N.Y.) Public Library, which shut down its building on March 14 and has ceased all ordering of physical materials. “We are taking our remaining funds for this fiscal year, which ends June 30, about $150,000, and spending them almost entirely on e-books and digital audio,” he said. “Most of my colleagues in the Westchester Library System are doing the same. And what we are doing is not unusual, it’s happening at libraries big and small throughout the country.”

Catherine Mason, catalogue & serials manager for the Columbus (Ohio) Metropolitan Library, said her library and its consortium—the Digital Downloads Collaboration (which managed some three million digital lends for its members in 2019) has doubled its budget for library e-book provider OverDrive in response to the crisis, and also increased budgets with other providers, including hoopla and Kanopy. The Columbus library is also using social media posts to push RBdigital’s Unlimited Audiobooks, which are simultaneously available to library patrons.

Dianne Coan, a division director for the Fairfax County (Va.) Public Library reported that her library has also boosted digital spending. “We almost always shift big chunks of un-earmarked money to our digital assets, so that part is normal,” Coan observed. “The speed at which this was done, and the options available, were not.”

Library vendors, meanwhile, are working hard to meet the surge. “Every single day we are crossing into new record territory,” said Steve Potash, CEO for OverDrive, the leading e-book provider for libraries. “If I gave you data for today it would be old news by tomorrow. Every day for the last week we’ve had record days,” Potash said, “record days for checkouts, record days for circulation, record days for holds, record days for the number of first-time users, record days for downloads and installation of the Libby app.”

Jeff Jankowski, founder and CEO of hoopla, said his company is also seeing a massive increase in usage across the board. “Librarians have been rushing to increase the strength of their digital collections in order to serve their communities,” Jankowski said, noting that hoopla partner libraries are increasing borrow limits, and more libraries are adding hoopla as a new service.

Meanwhile, following a contentious past 18 months during which all of the Big Five publishers raised prices and imposed new restrictions on digital lending in public libraries, the Covid-19 crisis has now prompted a number of publishers to relax e-lending terms, at least for the short term. The most prominent change came on March 17, when Macmillan abandoned its controversial embargo on new release e-books in public libraries and began lowering prices on select titles.

HarperCollins, which already offers what many librarians consider to be the most agreeable digital license terms, announced this week that it was adding 800 frontlist and 300 backlist e-book titles to its cost-per-circulation (CPC) catalogue, with more to come. In addition, the publisher is offering a 30% price discount on a select list of 1,000 e-books through June 1.

We are bringing a lot of people online, and it’s turning out to be a good experience for them. My guess is that many will want to stay there.

And for the next 90 days, Penguin Random House is offering libraries the option to license e-books and digital audio for one-year terms at a 50% prorated price as an alternative to the existing two-year term (for e-books) or perpetual access (for digital audio). A CPC model is also being made available.

Coan said PRH’s one-year license option for e-books and digital audio is proving to be “super useful” as the library tries to keep the holds list manageable—and she’d like to see it become a permanent option.

Carmi Parker, ILS administrator for the Whatcom County Library System agreed. “We’ve got 60-plus people waiting for the latest Joe Pickett mystery by C.J. Box and normally we would buy eight or nine more copies under the 24-month license,” Parker explained. “Now, theoretically, we can buy 16–18 copies for the same price with a 12-month license, and get folks through the holds queue twice as fast.”

Though the Covid-19 crisis is far from over, and the publishers' moves are short term responses to temporary library closures, it's not too early to start thinking about how this rapid digital shift might inform a new, more productive approach to the digital library market long term.

“In my opinion, one of the issues libraries face in the digital realm is that the publishers are so deeply invested in 20th-century models. I am hoping this helps shake them out of that,” Parker said. “This opportunity to experiment with different models means that when we start talking again with publishers about how e-lending can work best for all of us, we will have some real data to go on.”

Coan echoed Parker’s observations. “I am really hoping some good data can come from this,” she says. “There are so many rules and constraints flying out of the window—temporarily. It is fantastic to see everyone pulling together to do what needs to be done now, and then we’ll figure it out.”

Kenney said he too thinks about the potential long term impact. “We’re providing virtual reference service 30 hours a week. We licensed Zoom and will be rolling out 20 programs in April, from book discussions, to story times and Reiki workshops. We’ve revamped our website to highlight our digital content. We’re pushing out two e-newsletters a week, one for adults, one for kids, filled with recommendations for what to read or listen to, or view. And people are responding,” he said. “We are bringing a lot of people online, and it’s turning out to be a good experience for them. My guess is that many will want to stay there.”

Potash agreed, and added that he’s been gratified by the more than three dozen publishers who have stepped up to offer reduced-cost and, in some cases, free access to digital content to libraries and schools during this time of need. But the sheer magnitude of the shift, which could reach “tens of millions” of new digital library users, he suggested, portends changes that will almost certainly extend beyond the crisis.

“This is unprecedented,” Potash said. “I think digital library lending and services are being elevated to a new plateau. It's obviously not going to grow at this pace consistently. But it’s going to the next level.”