“Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship… I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers…. Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art… We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.”
Ursula K. LeGuin, National Book Awards Speech, 2014
Welcome to Library Futures, a new nonprofit that champions the right to equitable access to knowledge. In the news and in our communities, it’s hard to ignore the deleterious impacts of an inequitable knowledge ecosystem: from mob riots at the United States Capitol to the gouging of public schools for ebook licenses, to the corporate monopolies that plague communication platforms and sell our data for revenue.
As library workers, advocates for equity, and open enthusiasts, we believe the time has come for the library community to organize, advocate, set policy, and take action for equitable digital access. While the COVID 19 pandemic demonstrated the lack of civil society’s digital preparedness in the face of a crisis, libraries around the world demonstrated incredible ingenuity: institutions creatively utilized online resources and interlibrary loans, provided creative new virtual programming, and donated WiFi hotspots to those who need them. The Internet Archive’s National Emergency Library stepped in to fill a gap, and some vendors worked with libraries to provide greater access to their materials for students and learners alike.
And yet, artificial digital scarcity continues to reign, particularly as the pandemic drags on. In the UK, the trending hashtag #ebookSOS prompted thousands of UK based academics to sign an open letter urging their MPs to intervene as the global press decried the prices paid by universities. Instead of embracing the reading public, Wired reports that publishers are “worried” about the increase in usage of digital titles by libraries. This absurd proposition is undercut by Andrew Albanese, Senior Writer at Publisher's Weekly, who reports on the By the Book podcast that publisher revenues are up at least 8%. "Certainly, I think [these figures] could force some publishers to rethink their approach to library e-book lending," he says. It's up to us to make sure that they do.
Most people claim to “love libraries,” but loving libraries without addressing the issues endemic to the field is a form of “vocational awe,” which Fobazi Ettarh describes as “a set of assumptions… that result in notions that libraries as institutions are inherently good, sacred, [and] therefore beyond critique.” Beneath all the rhetoric about “loving libraries” runs the more ugly truth: rent seeking behavior in the form of licensing terms and refusal to provide access to resources at reasonable prices is contempt for the public, what Ursula K. LeGuin calls “a silly panic of ignorance and greed.” As Board Chair Kyle Courtney and others have persuasively demonstrated, the cultural transition from first sale (“you own what you buy”) to a licensing culture has made it impossible for libraries to do what they do: preserve, acquire, and lend books to the public.
So what are we going to do about it?
Librarians have been organizing around digital rights for decades, and we will join our voices in that chorus and push for a more equitable landscape for our communities. To begin with, we’ll be running events, social media campaigns, classes, and small grant making opportunities as well as supporting other organizations who fight for more equitable access to knowledge.
The best place to start is by joining the community on our email list, but you can also share or print out graphics for your library, communicate with us on social, contact me to become a participating organization or individual, or donate to make this vision a reality. These actions are just the beginning of a greater movement for digital equity in libraries – as we grow and evolve there will be plenty of opportunities to engage, so please stay in touch!
On a personal note, my mother passed away from a rare autoimmune disease two years ago, and her final months were unpredictable for me as her care provider. Without an institutional affiliation, I was unable to access quality medical information and found myself relying on user forums and snippets of paywalled articles. Despite my training as a librarian, I informed myself with faulty, surveilled, and incomplete information because I had no choice. As she slipped away from me, I felt first-hand the impact of withholding publicly funded information from people who need it. Our stories shine a spotlight on the avarice of an industry that places the blame on libraries, authors, researchers, or readers for the increasing corporatization of science and the useful arts.
As the first Executive Director of Library Futures, I am honored to bring my mother's legacy to this work and recognize the many activists, librarians, archivists, community organizations, and movements for justice that have come before me. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to continue to work with the people at the frontlines of this fight right now.
To end, I will invoke Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden: “We need librarians who are activists, engaged in the social work aspect of librarianship... Now we are fighters for freedom, and we cause trouble! We are not sitting quietly anymore.”
The time has come to cause trouble. Join us.