February 14, 2023

Library Futures Releases Policy Paper: Digital Ownership for Libraries and the Public

Library Futures is excited to announce that we are launching our policy paper on digital ownership for libraries. 

With broad availability of digital content, libraries and consumers should have more rights and access, but in fact, they have fewer. In the past several years, we have seen a dramatic digital shift by book publishers and ebook platforms away from traditional sales toward licensing content, particularly to the public sector, such as libraries. Licensing has resulted in a deeply broken system around ebook lending, impeding libraries from serving the needs of their communities while also creating critical access issues. This means that significant collections, archives, and repositories of digital content are inaccessible, unaffordable, or subject to exploitative terms that make it difficult for libraries to purchase materials to lend and preserve. A small group of large publishers and distributors dominate the ebook market and charge high costs for digital resources, forcing libraries to license rather than own works as they have traditionally with print resources.

In response, Library Futures recommends policymakers adopt an approach of digital ownership that extends the current paradigm for print works and allow libraries to both maintain the benefits of print collections and innovate even further toward providing new methods of access, preservation, and education by creating new lending models, equitizing access for underserved communities, and contributing to a more democratic balance. To that end, we have outlined some approaches to solving this issue through structural, community-based, and technical means: 

  • Legal reform: This can include judicial remedies through the courts, legislative action on the part of Congress, or regulatory intervention by an authority such as the Federal Trade Commission.
  • Collective action: Community intervention can be a powerful way to act concertedly to stand against entities that are prohibiting libraries from exercising their rights, such as boycotts and grassroots action, state legislative initiatives, and the collective use of incentives and accountability measures for publishers. 
  • Library-owned infrastructure: The library community can build its own infrastructure to ensure that it is oriented towards the needs of their users and provides libraries with the choice to own their digital content. This is not without its challenges (practical and resource-wise), but sustainable infrastructure can put control of digital content back into the hands of libraries and users. 

These realms are not mutually exclusive, but rather overlap and build upon each other. The intent of this paper is to structure the conversation by contextualizing options for the library and policy community on moving toward a more sustainable information ecosystem. There is no one solution for all occasions and all institutions, but what we hope to highlight is the importance for libraries to be able to choose the ownership or access model that best suits the needs of their communities. 

This policy paper is not intended to be a prescriptive directive, but rather a starting point for further discussion. Library Futures looks forward to the opportunity to work with libraries, publishers, and communities to develop systems and solutions that suit their needs in service of a balanced lending, learning, and publishing ecosystem. 

Thank you to our community of experts for their edits, feedback, and input into this paper. Download the Library Futures Policy Paper on Library Digital Ownership here. 

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