Back in a March 27 column, I questioned whether the historic shutdown in response to Covid-19 could be a watershed moment for library e-books. Some seven months later, usage of e-books, digital audio, and other digital resources has indeed risen dramatically at the nation’s public libraries—no surprise. But the question remains: will this spike in usage be a game changer for digital content in libraries? Or, will the library e-book market settle back into its old, contentious ways once the nation finds its post-pandemic footing?

It’s a complicated question—first and foremost because we are still far from containing the Covid-19 outbreak. Ensuring the safety of library staff and the community will continue to require significant time and resources, and in the teeth of a potentially massive budget crisis wrought by the pandemic.

But it’s complicated, too, because the library e-book market has long been a source of tension, marked by access restrictions and high prices that librarians have warned for years are not sustainable. It was just 10 months ago that Macmillan CEO John Sargent told a roomful of puzzled librarians at the 2020 ALA Midwinter Meeting that an embargo on new release e-books was needed because library e-book lending was knocking the publishing ecosystem out of balance. And though it was Sargent taking the heat from librarians that day, he was clearly not alone in some of his assumptions. From late 2018 through 2019, four of the Big Five publishers increased prices and changed licensing terms for digital content in libraries.

But in mid-March, when the reality of the pandemic became apparent, everything changed. As libraries closed their doors and began shifting their print budgets to digital, dozens of publishers began slashing library e-book and digital audio prices and easing restrictions. And after nearly two tense years dating back to its 2018 “experiment” with its Tor imprint, Macmillan abruptly abandoned its embargo on new release library e-books.

It’s worth noting that despite the tension in the marketplace, library e-book lending has still managed to post strong, consistent, double-digit growth every year for most of the last decade. But when the Covid-19 crisis hit and libraries and schools were suddenly forced to serve their communities remotely, the digital library market found a whole new gear.

“From March through August 2020, our digital usage is up 42% over the same period in 2019,” says Lisa Rosenblum, director of the King County (Wash.) Library System. A perennial leader in digital circulation prior to the pandemic, Rosenblum says KCLS has seen a staggering 333% increase in new eCards issued since the pandemic forced the library to close its doors in March, adding some 18,000 new digital users to the library’s existing base.

“In a normal year, our annual growth rate is 12% to 15%,” says Carmi Parker, a committee member for the Washington Digital Library Consortium, a coalition of 46 libraries in Washington State. “In April, May, and June, our digital circulation was up 40%, 46%, and 42% over 2019.” Parker says things have since started to settle back to more “normal” levels in recent weeks—but not by much. “In September, the growth rate was 29%, still double what we planned for.”

In Broward County, Fla., director Kelvin Watson says the average use of the library’s digital resources has jumped nearly 20%. “OverDrive has increased 23%, Axis360 increased 58%, Freegal Music increased 14%, and Hoopla increased 33%,” Watson reports. Further, Broward has seen “a substantial increase” in the number of unique users.

Crucially, the librarians I reached out to this week agreed: the easing of prices and restrictions by publishers during the pandemic has helped—a lot. For example, Penguin Random House’s move to offer one year, half-price licenses made a huge difference in helping the WDLC meet patron demand which, Parker says, still required an additional $50,000 special allocation to cover April and May.

The uneasy feeling shared by many librarians is that the pandemic may have necessarily changed the course of the digital library market during this annus horribilis, but the underlying issues and dysfunction in the market have still not been addressed.

They also agreed that the speed of this digital shift has left them in a tricky spot. What happens when the pandemic is behind us? If the library e-book market simply returns to its pre-pandemic state—in which publishers unilaterally raise prices and change terms without negotiation or even consultation—and digital demand remains dramatically higher, as is expected, how will libraries manage? The uneasy feeling shared by many librarians is that the pandemic may have necessarily changed the course of the digital library market during this annus horribilis, but the underlying issues and dysfunction in the market have still not been addressed. And as many libraries begin to reopen their print collections in some form, librarians say that publishers have yet to offer any clue about what the future may hold.

“I feel like we’re totally in the dark, despite there being so much press around libraries during the pandemic, and digital resources being a lifeline for our communities,” Watson says. “My big concern is being able to build and sustain digital collections. We’re not sure what publisher licensing terms and pricing models we’ll have to wrestle with in the future. We’re not sure if the increased usage we’re seeing will further strain the relationships we have with publishers. Or, will we finally have publishers developing licensing models that offer more equity and accessibility?”

The Covid-19 crisis has been nothing short of a national tragedy. But to paraphrase Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s famous remark, librarians say this is a crisis publishers and libraries cannot afford to waste. To serve their readers, publishers and librarians must take the experience of this extraordinary year and chart a new, stable, and sustainable course for e-books and digital content in libraries.

Certainly, 2020 has given us much to parse. Publishers have long justified their restrictive approach to library e-books as necessary to protect retail sales. But as library e-book usage has soared, consumer sales have not suffered. In fact, for the first seven months of 2020, the Association of American Publishers reports that adult trade book sales are up 4.6% for its members over 2019, with consumer e-book sales up 10.2%. Further, a number of e-books that were made widely available by libraries as part of timely antiracist collections posted impressive sales, including Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, which topped bestseller lists for weeks after many libraries around the country were able to offer the e-book in concurrent use format, meaning patrons could access the e-book immediately rather than having to wait on a holds list for a digital copy.

“There are times in life when differences should be put aside,” wrote Macmillan CEO John Sargent in his March 17 memo announcing the end of the publisher’s embargo. In fact, this is not a time for publishers and libraries to "put aside" their differences, librarians say, but to resolve them.

“We know the [library e-book] issue is not over,” Rosenblum says. “We still need to work together with publishers to find models that support both their need to be profitable, and the library’s mission to provide equitable access to e-books for all users.”