Hefty eBook fees causing crisis for library budgets

Hefty eBook fees causing crisis for library budgets

Jean Ricken, head of library services, MTU Bishopstown library. Libraries are struggling to budget for the licencing cost of new technologies like ebooks and e-audiobooks. Picture Denis Minihane

Irish libraries are grappling with an eBook crisis that’s eating up budgets with “huge and unsustainable” costs, and hitting librarians with onerous licensing agreements, disappearing titles, and price gouging.

The Library Association of Ireland has warned that both public and college libraries are encountering more and more issues with eBooks including “scandalous” price increases, restrictive licensing terms, and a lack of availability.

Demand for eBooks, and e-audiobooks, soared over the course of the pandemic as libraries moved their services online.

This move, while positive, has shone a light on longstanding problems with the eBook market, according to the group with represents the country’s academic and public libraries.

“It really is a case of technology moving ahead of legislative protections and a proper functioning market,” said Cathal McCauley, president of the Library Association of Ireland.

There is “clear evidence” that the market isn’t functional, he added.

“Books should be treated as books. At the moment publishers are really working hard to make distinctions between books and eBooks, and applying terms and conditions to eBooks that they don’t apply to books.

“It’s that disparity that’s really causing us pain at the moment.” 

While Irish publishers of eBooks are by and large “very fair”, the English-speaking bestseller market is controlled by the ‘Big Five’ publishers.

On average, eBooks tend to cost at least twice as much as a traditional paperbound book, but without the same manufacturing and distribution costs for publishers.

Print and digital collections of books. But are treated differently by publishers. Picture Denis Minihane.
Print and digital collections of books. But are treated differently by publishers. Picture Denis Minihane.


Libraries cannot purchase an e-Book, instead, they must license it and accept whatever restrictions are decided on by the publishers.

Currently, more than 40% of the national collection of eBook titles have restrictions on them, where limits are placed on the number of loans per title or time limits on the licensing agreement.

Many Irish universities are also encountering issues with eBooks. Last December, one academic publisher announced it was increasing the costs for licensing its eBook titles by 400% across the board.

“The key thing is that we’re there to make information available to citizens, whatever their information needs are,” Mr. McAuley said.

“That’s why we are so worried about this problem, we don’t want to not be able to make information available to some citizens or students, and we don’t want to just make it available to certain segments.” 

The Library Association of Ireland is calling for the introduction of legislation to ensure e-books are made available to libraries under reasonable terms and conditions.

This can be done by enshrining in law a library’s right to license and/or purchase any commercially available eBook without embargo.

A spokesperson for the Department of Rural and Community Development said the department was aware of the difficulties and was monitoring the situation. 

"Initial discussions on the wider issues associated with e-books have also taken place between the department, the LGMA, a representative of the Universities sector and the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and further discussions are scheduled to take place shortly.”

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