Shelley Tougas, Hudson Area Public Library director

Shelley Tougas is the Hudson Area Public Library's director. 

E-books. The waitlist, the cost, the licensing issues. Readers love them. As a librarian, e-books leave me, as the kids would say, smh. (That’s shaking my head.) 

Pew Research reports people in 2021 checked out more than half a billion “e-items,” up 55 percent from the previous two years. Libraries struggle to meet the demand for these increasingly popular items, and people generally are unaware of the tension between the publishing industry and public libraries.

Let’s take a look at the challenges:

Libraries don’t buy e-books. The publishers won’t allow it. We buy the right to offer the public an e-book for a limited period of time, generally two years. Then it has to be purchased again. On the other hand, libraries only re-purchase a physical book when it’s chewed by a puppy or accidentally dropped in a mud puddle. 

Libraries don’t get consumer pricing. You might buy an e-book for $12.99 and keep it forever, but the same book could cost libraries $50 for a two-year lending period. However, we get great discounts on paper books.

Libraries sometimes don’t have immediate access to purchase e-books. When a hot title is released, many publishers sell to the public first, libraries last. And the publisher might decide to sell just one copy of an e-book to a single library, including some of the country’s largest libraries.

Imagine a Milwaukee library with one copy of a bestseller. The waitlist might have hundreds of patrons.

Libraries couldn’t purchase Amazon titles for years. Even now, the purchasing options are limited.

Libraries have to explain the model to new readers: one patron, one e-copy. In theory, an e-book could be read simultaneously by multiple people. But e-books are just like physical books. You have to take your turn.

Publishing is a business, not a charity. Amazon has turned the industry upside down, and publishers are adapting to survive. We understand publishers need to be profitable, but there needs to be a reasonable balance between profitability and America’s library tradition. 

Intellectual freedom is a core value for libraries. We provide universal access to information, an essential foundation for democracy. Libraries have educated, informed and entertained Americans for nearly two centuries.

Keep checking out those e-books. We enjoy them, too. But if you’re frustrated by the waitlist or because we don’t have your favorite author’s new book, please know librarians nationwide are advocating for more titles and shorter waitlists.  

Shelley Tougas is the director of the Hudson Area Public Library.

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