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Behind E-Books, Libraries Find Restrictions and High Costs

One of the nation’s largest libraries has nearly doubled its collection spending in the last five years in an attempt to keep up with patrons’ digital demands. But the push has introduced new headaches.

A hand holding a stack of books protruding from a tablet screen.
The way people choose to get lost in a book is changing, and it’s costing public libraries and the local governments that fund them a lot of money.

Fewer readers are toting around their latest page-turner in a print format, instead opting to flip digital pages on an electronic device or hitting “play” on an audiobook while commuting to work or heading out on a walk.

A Pew Research Center Poll revealed that the number of people who report reading a physical book has declined in the last decade while the number of people who say they’ve listened to an audiobook has doubled. E-book readership also continues to climb.

To meet demands for these changes in literary habits, most public libraries have expanded their print collections to include digital versions of popular titles. Many use Libby, an app that allows library users to read e-books and magazines and listen to audiobooks.

Libby was created by OverDrive, an e-book and audiobook platform provider that launched its first service at the Cleveland Public Library in 2003, four years before Kindle was released. Twenty years later, OverDrive’s various apps are used by 88,000 public, school, academic and special libraries in 109 countries. While OverDrive circulation experienced the most rapid growth in 2020 during COVID-19 lockdowns, the number of checkouts continues to increase each year.


While many libraries are embracing digital books, they come at a hefty price. Libraries are at the mercy of publisher licensing agreements, and some publishers don’t allow libraries to lend out their books at all.

“Print books are generally governed by U.S. copyright law,” said Alan Inouye, the American Library Association’s executive director of public policy and advocacy. “If you or the library buys a print book, then you have quite a few rights over that copy of the book. You can lend it out, you can resell it, you can give it to your heirs. For digital books, you or the library have few or any of these rights.”

According to the ALA, libraries will often pay publishers $55 for one copy of a popular e-book for two years, while the same e-book is sold to consumers for about $15 for perpetual use. The higher prices are assigned to libraries by publishing companies who fear unlimited access to e-books would damage sales, Inouye said.

“A print book, as soon as the publisher puts it on the market, a library can get it. A library can just buy it or a consumer can buy it and the library can get it from the consumer,” said Inouye. “But digital books are just licenses, and if a publisher decides not to license to libraries, there is no recourse.”

In the past, libraries avoided publisher battles by simply purchasing print books for their collections the same way a private citizen would — at a retail store for the sticker price. Now that permission to read and lend out a book has gone digital, it’s provided publishers more control over how libraries lend out their content.

Citizens see the impact of this battle in excessive wait lists for the most popular titles.

“Libraries really can’t afford to buy as many digital books as they should be buying,” said Inouye. “So people are waiting and of course not understanding why the wait is so long for an e-book. Then within libraries it’s a management question of, ‘How much do we spend on physical materials? How much do we spend on digital?’ Obviously, digital budgets have been going up in the past decade and physical has been declining, but (in what direction) should that balance be going forward? It’s a difficult question.”


The Los Angeles Public Library has the highest circulation of all library systems who use OverDrive. The system, with 72 different library branches and 2.8 million users, hit a record-breaking 10 million digital checkouts in 2022.

According to public funding data for the library system, the library has nearly doubled its spending on its collection in the last five years, from $10.5 million in 2016-2017 to $19 million in 2021-2022. The largest increase came from electronic materials, which rose from $5 million in 2016 to more than $12 million in 2022.

But not all library systems can afford to invest as much funding in digital books as the Los Angeles Public Library has.

“We are fortunate to have a city librarian who prioritizes spending on library collections and that our city funding structure is such that the library’s overall budget has seen year-over-year increases, allowing us to continually increase our collection spending,” said Catherine Royalty, collection services manager for the Los Angeles Library, in an an email to Government Technology. “As demand for materials in digital formats has increased, we have increased the percentage of our collection budget devoted to supporting the digital collection.”

The ability of a library system to increase its digital collection will often sit squarely on the shoulders of the local government that funds it. In California there are 122 municipal libraries, and 96 percent of their income comes from their local governments.

The amount a local government spends per capita on its library system can vary dramatically.

In California, local government’s library spending in the 2021 to 2022 fiscal year varied from as little as $6.38 per citizen at the Victorville City Library to as much as $365.50 per citizen at the Beverly Hills Public Library. The Los Angeles Public Library received $53.07 per citizen in local funding.

Despite setting a nationwide record for digital circulation, the Los Angeles Public Library admits it still is challenged to keep up with patrons’ demands for digital books.

“We have made investing in the collection to keep wait times reasonable a priority in order to make the library a viable option for our users. Again, we are fortunate to have a healthy collections budget — managing digital demand is even more of a challenge for library systems with less funding,” said Royalty. “The restrictive lending models and high pricing that publishers have set for libraries will continue to be a huge issue in the coming years.”

As California library circulation leans increasingly electronic, local governments will have to decide how much money they can spend to provide equitable access for all citizens.


Multiple states have considered legislation to keep publishers from charging libraries higher prices for e-books or limiting access. So far, they’ve had little success.

Maryland enacted a law in 2022 requiring publishers to make e-books available on “reasonable terms” to libraries if they were also being offered to the general public, but a federal judge struck it down later that year after the Association of American Publishers contented the law violated the U.S. Copyright Act by allowing states to regulate publishing transactions.

In 2021, the New York Legislature passed a bill that would have required publishers to offer licenses for e-books under “reasonable terms” or face a $500 fine. It was later vetoed by Gov. Kathy Hochul, who cited copyright protection concerns.

When Connecticut lawmakers proposed a similar bill this year, the Association of American Publishers asserted that the bill was unconstitutional and would harm the livelihoods of authors.

A statement from the AAP reads, in part: “Authors, publishers and bookstores would not survive if every consumer could instead immediately ‘borrow’ a digital version of every book that they might otherwise decide to purchase. Indeed, no industry of any kind could function if forced to get unfettered free access while also trying to recoup investments.”

Inouye believes it’s critical for local governments to carefully examine their budgets and understand libraries’ need for additional funding as they work to meet digital demand for their residents.

Inouye also worries about the future impact of this increasingly digital landscape, and the collections that will disappear when a digital license has ended.

“There’s a role in society of preserving the cultural heritage of the nation,” Inouye said. “You can’t do that if you can’t actually have it. If the license expires in two years, then you’re stuck.”
Nikki Davidson is a data reporter for Government Technology. She’s covered government and technology news as a video, newspaper, magazine and digital journalist for media outlets across the country. She’s based in Monterey, Calif.