In a new paper, the American Library Association’s Joint Digital Content Working Group offered a frank assessment of the state of the library e-book market and assessed the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, during which demand for digital content in libraries surged.

“Libraries are grappling with extraordinary demand for both digital content and services—two costly program areas—that will add to the strain on already lean budgets,” the report, The Need for Change: A Position Paper on E-Lending, states. “This disruption has highlighted the importance of digital media and thus underscored a problem that libraries have raised for years: that some digital pricing and business models unreasonably hamper and sometimes entirely block access for library users.”

Among the report’s core findings: the pandemic has highlighted what librarians say is a fundamental inequity in the current digital library market. Unlike print books, where the library’s right to buy and lend books is protected by copyright law, basic access to e-books and digital content is subject to higher prices and restrictive license terms unilaterally set by publishers. The result: digital readers "who rely most on libraries—often poor or otherwise marginalized groups—are especially disadvantaged.”

The report covers trends in public, school, and academic libraries, and comes as librarians begin to grapple with their post-pandemic future—a future in which digital demand is almost certain to remain high after the pandemic, and in which library budgets are expected to be under stress. While the report acknowledges those publishers that offered price breaks and more flexible license terms during the pandemic, a return to the pre-pandemic state of play, it concludes, is simply not feasible.

“Libraries will be confronted with a necessary re-balance of physical and digital resources as many of the temporary financial accommodations from publishers either will not survive or have already expired,” the report argues. “If libraries cannot find ways to make digital collections robust, affordable and lasting, including a return to perpetual access as an option, they will never be able to meet an ever-increasing demand and provide equity of access to the communities they serve.”

Those who rely most on libraries—often poor or otherwise marginalized groups—are especially disadvantaged...

Specifically, the report renews calls for publishers to offer more flexibility in licensing—including a perpetual access option, something librarians have requested for years. More broadly, it urges publishers to reassess their overall approach to the market after a year in which trade book sales surged along with library e-book circulation.

“We recognize many works exist in a commercial framework, and we recognize creators’ and publishers’ need for fair remuneration,” the report states. “We salute some publishers for adopting some flexible models and sometimes reduced pricing during the pandemic, especially since these changes show that some of the terms we seek are possible long-term. But publishers should recognize the value of and support the role of libraries in civil society and honor these roles as we transition to the digital age.”

While there is little new in the report in terms of what the library community says it needs in the digital market, the pandemic has clearly changed the environment, the report suggests, and upped the stakes for libraries.

“This is the moment for libraries of all types and the funding agencies that support them to call upon publishers to increase and improve access to new and exciting e-content to our customers," the report concludes. “As a united group of public service institutions, libraries must ask publishing leaders to join us in creating a model that calls for open accessibility and equity not just some of the time and not just for some of the people, but also for everyone, all of the time, under any conditions, in any market, as a matter of industry practice.”