Rhode Island Introduces Bills to Alleviate Public Libraries’ E-book Expenses

Many readers in Rhode Island are eager to dive into Kristin Hannah’s latest work, “The Women.” The e-book edition of Hannah’s narrative set during the Vietnam War had an impressive 837 holds in various libraries across the state as of April 12. Just a week later, on April 18, that number had surged to 900, as reported by the statewide library catalog. Meanwhile, a few physical copies remained available for borrowing.

When it comes to e-books, libraries face a different scenario than consumers. According to the Rhode Island Library Association, libraries can pay up to nine times more for e-books than what consumers typically pay. Libraries don’t acquire e-books permanently; instead, they secure licenses for a specified number of checkouts or a certain period, usually one to two years.

Julie Holden, assistant library director at Cranston Public Library, expressed the financial strain libraries face when trying to meet the high demand for popular e-books. She mentioned that satisfying just half of the 800 holds for a particular book could cost the library $24,000, emphasizing the temporary nature of these e-book licenses.

To address the escalating costs and restrictions imposed by e-book publishers, Rhode Island libraries have thrown their weight behind legislative efforts in the General Assembly. House bill H7508, led by Rep. Lauren Carson, and Senate bill S2514, spearheaded by Sen. Victoria Gu of Westerly, aim to empower public libraries in negotiations with e-book suppliers by leveraging state contract law.

The proposed legislation seeks to grant libraries more control over loan periods, pricing closer to consumer rates, and transparency in licensing agreements with other libraries. It’s part of a broader initiative across several states to reign in e-book prices, with similar bills in motion in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Iowa, Hawaii, and New York.

The costly nature of e-books presents a significant challenge for libraries like Cranston Public Library. E-books constitute a substantial financial burden, especially in an already constrained budget environment. Libraries purchase licenses for e-books through platforms like OverDrive and Hoopla, with pricing structures and limitations that differ from traditional book purchases.

The evolution of e-book pricing and accessibility has changed significantly over the years. A decade ago, e-books were relatively affordable, but with publishers shifting to licensing models with restrictions like limited checkouts, the costs have surged, prompting concerns over the sustainability of current practices.

In the realm of audiobooks, a separate but equally costly endeavor, libraries face similar challenges. The expenses associated with audiobooks far exceed what consumers pay, placing a strain on library budgets. Given the high price tags of audiobooks, libraries often have to make tough choices about allocation and procurement.

Efforts to introduce legislation that empowers libraries in e-book negotiations have been ongoing in Rhode Island’s General Assembly in recent years. However, progress has been slow, with the bills facing various hurdles and opposition from different quarters.

The debate over e-books extends beyond Rhode Island to a national and global context, where issues of licensing, pricing, and access play a central role in discussions around public libraries’ sustainability and equitable distribution of literary resources.

The challenges faced by libraries in navigating the e-book landscape underscore the broader tensions between content creators, distributors, and consumers. As the digital realm continues to evolve, finding a balance between access, affordability, and sustainability remains a critical issue for all stakeholders involved in the literary ecosystem.

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