Jun 3, 2024 - News

E-book struggles create another library hurdle in Des Moines

Illustration of a hand cursor resting on the pages of an open book.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

E-book restrictions and costs are forcing local libraries to make tough choices as the popularity of digital checkouts grows.

Why it matters: Loan limits and price disputes between libraries and publishers threaten to limit patrons' access.

Driving the news: About a dozen states have shown interest in taking up model e-book legislation drafted by Harvard librarian and lawyer Kyle Courtney to prohibit many of the restrictions next year, Courtney tells Axios.

  • Iowa librarians are watching that movement closely for a possible solution to local struggles, Jennifer Tormey, technical services supervisor at the Des Moines Public Library (DMPL), tells Axios.

Stunning stat: Digital checkouts comprise almost a third of DMPL's circulation and a third of its annual $900,000 materials budget.

State of play: Publishers typically require libraries to renew each e-book license every two years or after 26 loans.

  • The limits are particularly problematic for bestsellers, Tormey said.

Zoom in: As an example, DMPL has 13 e-book copies of "The Women" by Kristin Hannah that was published in February. They were checked out 110 times and had 250 holds as of last week.

  • Each copy costs $60; only one person can check it out.

Meanwhile, the library's 35 physical copies of the book cost about $20 each and had 115 holds total.

What they're saying: Libraries have a "unique and determinative public mission" that should entitle them to more favorable e-book purchasing terms when using public funds, Courtney says.

The other side: The Association of American Publishers argues that it must protect authors' rights to be fairly compensated for their work.

What we're watching: DMPL is trying to balance the allure of digital with other library services as total circulation "skyrockets," per Tormey.

  • More than 1.4 million items were checked out in the fiscal year that ended June 2023, up more than 8% from the previous 12 months, per DMPL's most recent annual report.

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