Calgary Public Library joins fight against publisher restrictions on e-books

Library administrators in Calgary are banding together with libraries across North America to fight for access to e-books, in the wake of recent moves by major publishing houses that restrict public libraries' access.

Embargoes, limit on copies part of publishers' strategy to limit public library access

Mark Asberg, CEO of the Calgary Public Library, attended the Canadian Urban Library Council meeting this week in London, Ont., where he said e-book access was a hot topic. (Bryce Maruk)

Library administrators in Calgary are banding together with libraries across North America to fight for access to e-books, in the wake of recent moves by major publishing houses that restrict public libraries' ability to buy them.

Macmillan Publishing is one of the big five book publishers in North America. The company recently announced that all public libraries, regardless of size, will have new limits on how many e-books they can buy as well as how soon they get access to the latest book titles.

"What we're seeing is an array of restrictions from a number of different publishers," said Mark Asberg, CEO of the Calgary Public Library. He said e-books can cost four to six times as much as a physical copy of a book, and that publishers are also restricting the number of copies.

"Simply the sheer price of e-books, which puts them out of reach for many public libraries, and also licensing restrictions that restrict how long we will actually have access to titles that we're licensing."

As Asberg told the Calgary Eyeopener, that means that after a certain number of circulations, the title disappears from the catalog, or there might be a duration of, for example, one year, after which point the library would no longer have access to it. 

The final issue is around e-audio titles, which are often completely unavailable to public libraries.

"So all of these combined are creating a very difficult environment for us to provide the e-books and the e-content that that people in the community are really expecting and need at this point," Asberg said.

CBC reached out to Macmillan Publishers for comment but did not hear back before press time.

However, back in July, Macmillan circulated a letter to its authors, illustrators and agents that said libraries are "cannibalizing sales" and that these new rules will help protect the value of authors' books.

"Llibraries are really great at creating communities, and communities of readers buy books," Asberg said. "Also, libraries are great customers of publishers. We buy about 10 per cent of the books that are sold in the country in any given year. So I actually think that we actually are all on the same side here. We want people to be readers."

The Calgary Public Library faces publisher restrictions on e-books and e-audiobooks that have frustrated library users. (CBC)

Asberg said libraries also raise the profile of books over the long term.

"Certainly the newest bestsellers are the things that circulate the best," he said. "But one of the things that libraries do is as they buy books and they keep them in their catalogue, they maintain interest in the author's work over the long term, which actually creates more interest for buying those books in the future as well. 

Asberg said the library also does a lot of work with individual authors and publishers, working with authors to promote their books through, for example, author readings.

So, do libraries have the option of not working with a particular publisher?

"It's tricky," Asberg said. "Because we're not just talking about one publisher, we actually are talking about the big five publishers … who are all doing some form of this."

Asberg, who spoke to CBC by phone from London, Ont., where he was attending the Canadian Urban Library Council meeting, said libraries and publishers need to keep working together.

"This is a big topic for us and not just in Canada but all across North America," he said.

"We have been co-ordinating across the country in terms of our advocacy efforts. We've also now connected with the Urban Libraries Council and the American Library Association in the United States because we realize that this isn't just an issue for Canada or for Calgary. This is an issue across North America, and libraries need to really work together to find a solution across the across the entire continent."

Asberg said library users can sign a petition at, and that local users have already been seeing the effects of the restrictions.

"We often get questions about why a certain title is unavailable, particularly e-audio titles. And one of the answers that is already in our portfolio, unfortunately, is that we simply cannot buy it," he said.

"We're simply restricted from buying it from the publisher. Or the price is so exorbitant that we can only get a couple of copies, which doesn't satisfy the need in the community."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener