eBooks are changing everything, or at least that is how some perceive it. On the other hand, just about every librarian has expressed frustration over the availability of eBooks for libraries. Some librarians lament the checkout limit restrictions imposed by HarperCollins, while others bemoan the price structure and outrageous fee increases from Random House. A large number express a seemingly ceaseless frustration about the infer product availability for eBooks, Overdrive. Yet, some complain about the lack of eBook materials from Simon and Schuster, Penguin Group, Macmillan, and the Hachette Group. All of these issues and concerns are very real, and valid. However, they most impact the service model of the library.
Libraries have been facing an uphill battle in collecting and disseminating eBooks for American citizens. While the eBook issues around Overdrive and the Big 6 publishing houses as well as the role of Amazon are worthy of a separate debate, I want to focus on a different, much bigger issue. While the debates about how to deal with eBooks rage on, one enduring value of libraries has fallen to the wayside. The eBook issue needs to be framed in a different philosophical light. The recent struggle to obtain access to eBooks for libraries is a freedom to read and equity of access matter.
The real issue here is the issue of human rights, inequality and social justice. Article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (italics mine). American citizens, regardless of economic status, have a fundamental right to seek and receive information through any format, especially when that format becomes mainstream. Just about 1 in 3 Americans owns a tablet or eReader.
The Freedom to Read Statement of our American Library Association states “The freedom to read is essential to our democracy. It is continuously under attack. Private groups and public authorities in various parts of the country are working to remove or limit access to reading materials…” The shift to a commercial only model for the delivery of eBook content is a limit to access for many Americans. “It is the responsibility of publishers and librarians to give full meaning to the freedom to read by providing books that enrich the quality and diversity of thought and expression.” This is reiterated in the American Library Association Policy Manual “Libraries and librarians protect and promote [freedom of expression] by selecting, producing, providing access to, identifying, retrieving, organizing, providing instruction in the use of, and preserving recorded expression regardless of the format or technology (italics mine).
The shift into digital content creates an economic barrier to the access of information for many of our citizens. As Seanan McGuire, an author in her own right, laments “every time a discussion of ebooks turns, seemingly inevitably, to “Print is dead, traditional publishing is dead, all smart authors should be bailing to the brave new electronic frontier,” what I hear, however unintentionally, is “Poor people don’t deserve to read”. Seanan captures the true issue facing our society. Many of the citizens of our country simply cannot afford to purchase eBooks.
David Rothman continues “Those are the kinds of issues I’ve been begging the Digital Public Library of America to take action on, either directly or through alliances with other organizations of all kinds. Unless the DPLA and others pay more attention to the needs of the non-elite, e-books will widen rather than close up the digital and academic divides”.
I’m not alone in recognizing the eBook issue as an issue of human rights and social justice. Sarah Houghton and Andy Woodworth put together an eBook User Bill of Rights. While the Bill of Rights focuses on legal issues and digital rights management they do conclude that they are “concerned about the future of access to literature and information in eBooks” for library patrons and American citizens. For a time, the notion of eBooks rights even spread to social media. For example, Twitter was awash in conversation under the hashtag #ebookrights.
eBooks can serve as a powerful catalyst for our society and for how libraries serve the public. They have the power to free information from the oligarchic control of a few publishers. eBooks can truly democratize information and give a voice to so many silent Americans. We are seeing this already with the many authors who publish direct to Amazon or some other corporation. However, eBooks also have the power to serve corporate greed and overly restrict access to information for the have-nots of our society. Maybe eBooks are changing everything, but not in the way we think. Perhaps we are trading one evil for a worse evil.
I don’t think print will die in my lifetime, but it seems clear that a transition is underway. Over the next few years it seems likely that a growing percentage of eBook exclusive publishing will continue. What is the long term effect of this? Imagine if Dickens had published direct through Amazon. Not a single library would legally be able to provide access to his work. The commercial only model of a content delivery will likely have a deep and long-lasting impact on our society. While unfettered access to eBooks is “not the equivalent of emancipation, it is in a more limited but essential way the precondition for engaging in struggles around both relations of meaning and relations of power. To be literate is not to be free, it is to be present and active in the struggle for reclaiming one’s voice, history, and future” (Freire & Macedo, 1987, p. 11)