Librarians Complained About Being “Windowed” for E-Books by Large Publishing House in 2019

Librarians Complained About Being “Windowed” for E-Books by Large Publishing House in 2019

“I have an unshaken conviction that democracy can never be undermined if we maintain our library resources and a national intelligence capable of utilizing them.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a letter to publisher Herbert Putnam

Unlike our previous reporting on book censuring with libraries, NPR recently reported on the state of the e-book business.

Ironically, the NPR reporting came out when the courts just settled, one of the largest anti-trust cases against a publishing house, DOJ v. PRH.

The NPR piece was part of a 25-minute interview of the podcast, Planet Money, hosted by Dave Blanchard and Amanda Aronczyk.

E-books have become a contentious problem between libraries and publishing houses. Typically, publishing houses have, in part, depended upon this public support of the publishing industry through the continuous purchasing of physical copies. But with e-books, things have changed.

The first half of the interview deals with the library point of view of the problem including a 2019 protest by librarians against the publishing house, Macmillan, for its practice known as “windowing.” Windowing is where an e-book is embargoed to one copy of an e-book creating long waiting periods for new titles. Ironically, both publishers and libraries agree to some “restrictions on licenses” to “limit the number of people who can borrow an e-book.”

With a print copy, a library would have to purchase multiple copies for the ability to loan out multiple books, but with e-books, this isn’t necessarily the case. Sometimes, e-book agreements expire after the library loans out so many times. And many times, licenses contain an expiration date.

Libraries typically have limited budgets and must justify their existence through borrowing. Thus, many feel the restrictions being placed on by publishing houses is holding them back.

Now the second half dealt with the publishing side of the equation, which looks at the library as an intermediary to the end customer, the reader.

Publishers see apps such as Libby as an existential threat to the industry by allowing readers to easily “borrow books and place holds.”

Worse is that many libraries have minimal standards to get borrowing privileges. We’ve seen this rise with banned books in many libraries across the nation. Which for apps like Libby allows for greater access and less time spent on waiting lists.

In the end, the 2019 protest by libraries over “windowing” failed. Then the pandemic happened, and many libraries were shuttered.

Then in Maryland there was even an attempt to lower e-book prices for libraries, but a judge struck this down.

But Macmillan eased up on its “windowing” policy during the height of the pandemic, as more and more people needed access to e-books. But with the pandemic mostly over, and shuttered libraries re-opening again, librarians are bracing for its return.

We, the staff of the E-JSD, see libraries, especially public libraries, as an integral part of American democracy. They serve both a dual purpose of providing information to the masses and supporting the very industry that creates and provides that information. Libraries are important to our nation’s commitment to freedom of speech. In our humble opinion, society would be better served if there was a greater financial commitment to libraries than what’s typical of them. They could serve as the great equalizer in the publishing industry.


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