Tag Archives: eLending

Beneath the surface: reflections on some of the themes underpinning debate at SCCR42

Last month’s 42nd meeting of the World Intellectual Property Organisation’s (WIPO) Standing Committee on Copyright and Related rights (SCCR) was, at the same time, a breath of fresh air, and a return to the norm.

It was certainly welcome to be able to engage, once again, with delegates in person. Fora like WIPO offer great opportunities to interact with government representatives in order to understand more clearly their priorities and concerns, and to share the experiences of libraries.

There was also, thanks to the initiative of the African Group, the first Member State-led effort in many years to define and drive forwards the agenda on exceptions and limitations to copyright for libraries, archives, museums, education and research.

While only a part of the proposals made it through this time around, it is very positive news that libraries and their users can count on some governments at least to defend their interests.

This same point is, at the same time, also a reason for some disappointment. Despite the extreme caution in the proposals to adhere to consensus positions previously stated in the Committee, some groups – notably richer countries, continued to look to emaciate any effort to move SCCR in the direction of work that would bring benefits to libraries and their users.

While the rest of the African group proposal remains on the table for the next meeting, it was only a proposed information session on cross-border working, as well as a toolkit on preservation that had already been in the works, and a scoping study on a research toolkit that made it through this time around.

In their resistance to progress, developed countries could cite the support of rightholder organisations that looked both to warn against any extension of limitations and exceptions (L&Es), and which suggested that the status quo – at least as concerns L&Es – is adequate.

So why was this the case? This blog looks to explore some of the underlying themes which can help explain this situation.

We are not always talking about the same thing when we are talking about copyright: during exchanges between Member States, observers and experts, it became clear that two definitions of copyright were in use.

The narrower one sees copyright as being only about the exclusive rights given to rightholders, for example to reproduce, translate, or use works. The wider one – used for example by Professor Raquel Xalabarder – looks at copyright as a wider system, incorporating both rights and exceptions and limitations to them.

The argument for a latter approach is based on the core goals set out in texts such as the Berne Convention and beyond – i.e. that copyright should serve to support the production and dissemination of new ideas. Given how important access to and use of existing works is to the production of new ones, it makes sense that copyright needs to be seen as including the L&Es that allow this.

This wider approach is welcome, representing a more enlightened and constructive approach that of course takes account of the contribution of libraries. It also helps us get beyond the tired and blinkered cliché that any non-remunerated use of works is tantamount to stealing.

There remains, in some quarters, a refusal to accept that the public interest should be considered: a revealing statement was made by one observer from a rightholder lobby during discussions, when he argued that the public interest should never come at the expense of that of rightholders. This explicit argument for an unbalanced copyright system is something that you rarely hear spoken out loud.

This highlights the need for spaces like WIPO where governments can indeed take into account arguments from different perspectives on the way in which copyright systems should be designed, if they are to achieve their goal of delivering the best outcomes for societies as a whole.

This is not of course to say that protection of the interests of rightholders is not in the wider public interest. It is, up to a point. However, when the marginal benefits of protecting these private interests are outweighed by the costs to society of denying access and usage possibilities, governments need to act.

There is an assumption that while access concerns should be balanced by rightholder concerns, rightholder concerns should not be balanced by access concerns: closely linked to the previous point, the structure of the research report presented during the information session on the first day of SCCR is telling.

The first half of the report focused on the experience of rightholders during the pandemic, and how in particular the shift to digital had impacted the revenues of different categories of creator and intermediary. This underlined the hardship that many in the book sector had studied, but then presented, uncritically, the steps taken by some publishers at least to facilitate access.

The second half talked about libraries, archives, museums, educators and researchers. Beyond a tendency to indicate that the real problems lay outside of copyright, for example in funding (a point which is partially true, but does not take away from the need for copyright reform), the report felt the need to suggest that enabling libraries to do their jobs better in a digital world nonetheless should not come at the expense of rightholder interests.

This is revealing, sadly underlining a presumption – a prejudice even – that somehow the interests of libraries and their users need to be balanced, but those of rightholders do not.

There is a challenge around the supply of digital content, but is freezing work on L&Es the answer?: a fundamental question raised by both ‘sides’  of the debate – and which the WIPO Secretariat to their credit has certainly recognised – is that an key underpinning issue is the fact that there simply isn’t enough affordable, accessible, digital content out there.

Given the size of the internet, this may seem like an odd claim, but for many in schools and research centres, it is the case, with materials either stuck behind unscalable paywalls, not available in relevant languages, or simply not existing on topics and contexts that matter.

Advocates for rightholder organisations suggest that a key factor in this undersupply is a fear that if works are made available in digital format, they will be pirated, and demand for them will evaporate. As a secondary argument, they also claim that digital-adapted L&Es will also suppress the market.

Of course, the first question is one of enforcement, not basic copyright laws, while the second goes back to the arguments above about the degree to which the work of libraries strengthens or weakens markets for books and other materials.

The counter-argument here of course is that libraries offer an excellent means of providing access to digital content in a way that can be better controlled, using effective tools, and of course that the work of libraries represents a guarantee of research, innovation and creativity in the future, not a threat to it.

Indeed, we can argue that this is rather a failure of the market to respond to demand, driven perhaps by a lack of capacity, but also perhaps by fear and uncertainty among actors who more or less control the market.

This is not the first time that WIPO has addressed the issue of the under-supply of content in formats that work for readers. It’s exactly the challenge that the Marrakesh Treaty looked to overcome.

While international legal action around L&Es remains only one of the options on the table for now to resolve this failure (although arguably, there’s no other way of dealing definitively with challenges around cross-border working), it would undoubtedly have a strong triggering effect on national legislation.


This blog has looked to provide insight into some of the assumptions and understandings that explain position taken, and outcomes achieved, at SCCR. Addressing them, and finding solutions, will need to be part of any ongoing strategy to achieve progress.

As a final point, of course, it is worth noting that copyright can of course tend to polarise, whereas on most issues, the interests of rightholders, libraries and their users converge. Setting aside pure profit motives, we all, deep down, work towards a situation where there is a rich production of relevant materials, and literate, curious populations that are eager to read and apply knowledge. Despite the various points of disagreement in fora like WIPO, it is good to remember that we are all there for the same ultimate purpose.

Caught in the Backwash? Six things worth retaining from the time of the pandemic

When IFLA’s Trend Report was released in 2013, the strapline was ‘Riding the Waves or Caught in the Tide’.

The Report focused on long-term trends affecting the way we live, work, interact and learn.

Today, libraries are of course faced with the very immediate question of how to provide services during a pandemic, and manage a recovery that is likely to be uneven and slow.

In particular, there will be key questions about when special measures taken in the context of the pandemic should be withdrawn.

This applies, of course, to restrictions on travel, on the opening of libraries, schools and businesses, and to the huge focus of resources into boosting medical capacity.

Finding the right time to return to ‘normal’ (insofar as this is possible) is a hard question, and decisions will need to take account of many factors, not least risks to health.

However, there are arguably some measures and practices which shouldn’t be withdrawn at all. In effect, as the wave recedes, how can we avoid these good things being caught in the backwash?

This blog offers a few suggestions of things we might want to keep from the time of COVID-19, building on our own experience and ideas shared by others.

Better deals for digital content: 2019 was marked, in particular, by tensions around the decision by some publishers to enforce embargoes on eBooks before making them available to libraries.

With the beginning of the crisis, not only was this position lifted, but there were welcome steps by a number of publishers to offer discounts on electronic content, helping to meet major increases in demand. As Publishers Weekly noted, increases in library use have gone hand-in-hand with increases in sales, and sales and profits have increased for many individual companies.

Of course, we are far from a perfect situation. Some special deals have lapsed, and eBooks remain expensive for libraries in comparison with the prices paid by consumers. In the academic field, there have been particular concerns about high and rising prices.

As positive sales figures for publishers are reported and analysed, we can at least hope that there will be a greater readiness to accept that library lending of digital content is not a harm, but rather a support to digital reading in general.

Awareness of the Need for Open Access and Copyright Reforms: a further impact of the crisis, at least in some countries, has been awareness of the need to ensure that copyright laws keep up with technology, in particular by ensuring that libraries can pursue their missions just as well through digital means as through analogue ones.

Linked to this is the drive to increase the share of research published open access, by-passing the need to rely on copyright exceptions in order to access and use work. Millions of educators, learners and researchers will now have their own experience of  whether materials are available to them online or not.

Bringing together this experience in order to sustain the momentum could see important progress, replicating the progress we are seeing in the proposals for reform made in Australia and Japan. At the international level, reiterating and underlining that existing global rules allow such steps will also be helpful.

Improved Services to People with Mobility Issues: during the pandemic, whole populations have discovered what it is like having to live life without having access to the physical premises of libraries. However, this was already the case for many – those living in remote areas, with limited mobility, in care homes or in prisons.

In response to lockdowns, there has been a wave of innovation in the provision of content and services, both to wider user groups and targeted on individuals most in need.

When safe re-opening is possible, there will clearly be a limit on resources – providing services offline and online can require much more effort and investment than providing just one of the two. However, we can hope that lessons from the crisis are learned and those without the possibility to access a library physically will benefit from lasting improvements in provision.

More regular, shorter meetings: pre-COVID, the possibility of physical meetings – conferences, seminars and other events – tended to a large extent to structure the rhythm of cooperation and communication between professionals. Where there were electronic meetings, these tended to be smaller, serving mainly to keep things moving.

However, without the possibility to meet in person during the pandemic, we have seen mush more exploration of the scope of digital platforms to bring people together. For example, in Ireland, regular town hall meetings have brought together all librarians in the country on a regular basis – something that would previously only have been thought of as something for conferences.

Similarly, many of IFLA’s own sections have moved from coming together twice a year for longer periods to more frequent, shorter sessions. These have allowed greater responsiveness to events, and new possibilities for participation. This feels, certainly, like a good practice to maintain.

Bringing in new voices: linked to the above point, with physical meetings not possible, we have hopefully seen a lasting weakening of the idea that it is necessary to travel in order to be able to participate. While it is clear that poor connectivity remains a major challenge, it is certainly easier to address than that of finding the money, time and visas to attend meetings in other countries or continents.

Again drawing on IFLA experiences, there have been exciting new possibilities to attend meetings organised by colleagues around the world, learning from a wider and richer range of experiences. This has opened a door to a greater diversity in the voices heard within the library field.

While of course meeting again in person will be important, both personally and as a means of reenergising the wider community, there will be value in maintaining these wider possibilities for engagement which have brought so much to the debate within the field.

Seeing libraries as an investment: finally, it has been welcome, in the context of the pandemic, to see some governments at least see supporting libraries as a way of stimulating economies. Such investments, crucially, are designed not only to create jobs now, but also to create the foundations for stronger growth in future, and so repay themselves over time.

Examples have included support for stronger connectivity, enlarged collections, and building works, all of which make it easier for libraries to fulfil their mission of providing equitable access to information.

While stimulus packages will have an end date, the evidence of the recognition that investing in libraries is a way of building a stronger economy is one that will be worth working to maintain. Gathering data about the positive impact of this work, as far as possible, will help with library advocacy for years to come.

Filling the Evidence Gap: an Interview with Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Panorama Project


The lending of eBooks by libraries remains an area of controversy, with libraries often facing high prices and difficult licencing conditions, while publishers worry about impacts on sales and revenues to authors.

A key challenge in this has been the relative newness of the format, and the lack of a shared evidence-base for understanding both eLending itself, and its interrelation with wider markets. The Panorama Project is aiming to address this. We interviewed Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Project Lead, to find out more.


How well does anyone understand the eBook market and the place of libraries within it today?


The answer really depends on your perspective and priorities. The size of the overall consumer ebook market is difficult to measure because Amazon owns a significant percentage of it, especially on the self-publishing side, and they don’t publicly share any useful data. OverDrive is the dominant player on the library side, but NPD Bookscan doesn’t track ebook sales the same way they do print, and the American Association of Publishers (AAP) doesn’t break out library sales at all, so there’s no authoritative industry source for context.

Individual publishers generally have a good sense of where their ebook revenue comes from, but it’s mostly “last-click attribution” which heavily favors Amazon and OverDrive, and they generally don’t have a good sense of which factors might be impacting their consumer sales. They also don’t have deep data on what drives those sales, including the role of discoverability through libraries, nor any useful insights into print circulation. The combination of fragmentation and lack of transparency is one of the primary reasons the Panorama Project was initiated.



Why do you think that there is relatively little data out there?


Trade book publishing is a notoriously opaque industry, for a variety of reasons, including private ownership of most major publishers and intermediaries. Movies, music, and video games all have relatively transparent sales data that’s shared publicly and regularly dissected by their respective media outlets, but we rarely learn how many copies the latest New York Times’ (NYT) Bestsellers actually sold in any given week or year—unless it’s the rare breakout hit—despite it being one of the industry’s primary, albeit heavily curated and proprietary, measuring sticks. There are NYT Bestselling authors who’ve sold fewer copies of any book than the average middling video game, but they get to wear the badge anyway.



What impact has this had on the decisions that are being taken by different actors?


It’s led to some publishers making “data-driven” decisions about ebook pricing and access that lack proper context, potentially resulting in unintended changes to consumer behavior. Assuming library access is impacting consumer ebook sales and making strategic decisions based on that assumption is a risky bet—especially if Amazon is the primary source of the data driving that assumption. What if it’s not just library availability, but consumer ebook pricing, competition from other traditional publishers and self-publishers, or other forms of media, that is impacting your sales?

When you limit libraries’ access to your books, you cut off an important discovery and consumption channel for a segment of your audience. And when you do that purposefully, you’re as likely to drive readers to either wait until it’s available or borrow another book they’re interested in that is available, as opposed to converting them to buyers in another channel. If there was more transparency around sales data, and more understanding about discovery and purchase paths, the question of libraries’ actual impact would be a much easier question to answer. That requires purposeful, good faith collaboration. 



Where do you see the Panorama Project as making a difference?


Our primary goal is to encourage more productive, good faith conversations about public libraries in general—from discovery and engagement to direct and indirect impact on sales—so the industry can come to a collaborative consensus on how to measure their impact, whether it’s positive or negative. Our various initiatives are designed to provide data-informed insights on that impact in specific areas, while building a foundation for more effective collaboration moving forward.



How does the Panorama Project work?


A cross-industry Advisory Council with members from Penguin Random House, Sourcebooks, Open Road Media, American Library Association, Audio Publishers Association, NISO, Ingram Content Group, and OverDrive, serves as a sounding board for potential and ongoing initiatives. They offer insight and expertise in different areas to ensure those initiatives can have a measurable impact, and align with Panorama Project’s mission. We partner with different publishers, vendors, and organizations on specific initiatives, and I personally consult with a number of colleagues and experts across the industry for feedback and insights to ensure we’re on the right track.



How international is it or could it be?


We’re currently focused on public libraries in the United States, but we have occasional conversations about potential opportunities to expand our reach as there is international interest in our work. There are no specific plans currently in development, although I’d love to hear feedback from anyone who has ideas.



Clearly, support from OverDrive as one of the major commercial players in the market will raise some eyebrows. Should it?


It’s a fair concern and one I shared when I was initially approached to take on the role as Project Lead. OverDrive identified the need, helped convene the Advisory Council, and brought me on to run things—but our work is never tied to any specific OverDrive agenda, and everything we produce is fully transparent and widely shared for the benefit of the overall industry. The Advisory Council includes members from Penguin Random House, Sourcebooks, Open Road Media, American Library Association, Audio Publishers Association, NISO, Ingram Content Group, and OverDrive. One of our primary research initiatives for 2020—the Immersive Media & Reading 2020 Consumer Survey—is in partnership with the Authors Guild, ALA, Book Industry Study Group, Independent Book Publishers Association, and PubWest. I expect that kind of collaboration will become the norm for all of our future initiatives. 



What findings have you already established?


Some of our early initiatives measured the positive impact of library access on consumer sales on specific titles, most notably debut author Jennifer McGaha’s Flat Broke With Two Goats (Sourcebooks, 2018), the subject of our Community Reading Event Impact Report. Our Readers’ Advisory Impact Committee researched, documented, and analyzed the wide variety of RA title and author recommendation activities used in public libraries, and produced the Readers’ Advisory Directory. That initiative led to further research on Public Library Events & Book Sales which identified major gaps in publishers’ understanding and valuation of the monetary value of those libraries’ organic and purposeful marketing activities. 



What current work are you most excited about?


Our two main initiatives for 2020—the Immersive Media & Reading 2020 Consumer Survey, and Library Marketing Valuation Toolkit—grew out of the realization that a lack of transparency around data in the publishing industry is a major obstacle to establishing an effective foundation for collaboration. I’m particularly excited about the consumer research because it’s been years since anyone’s taken a good look at how book readers’ behaviors have evolved in the wake of ebooks and audiobooks, not to mention other immersive media like streaming and gaming. We’ve partnered with Portland State University and assembled a cross-industry committee to collaborate on developing the methodology and the survey itself, ensuring that the findings will not only be credible, but actionable. COVID-19 forced us to adjust our timeline, but we’re expecting to field the survey in the early Fall and have initial findings published before the end of the year.



How do you see COVID-19 changing the landscape of library eLending?


In the short-term, we’ve already seen reports of increased engagement with libraries’ electronic resources which, of course, leads to increased spending to meet that demand. Unfortunately, few libraries are going to come out of this period with increased budgets, so hard decisions will need to be made about materials budgets across the country. The longer the pandemic lasts, the more likely temporarily modified consumer behaviors will become permanent preferences, so I suspect we’ll see an acceleration in engagement with, and increased spending on, digital content. If schools face a prolonged period of remote learning through the Fall and into Winter, even if it’s a hybrid approach, that acceleration will probably be even faster.



What are the next big questions needing answering to your mind?


The main questions I proposed at the end of 2019 remain unanswered, and are arguably even more critical to answer in light of current events.

  1. How much of public libraries’ estimated $1.5 billion overall materials budget goes toward trade publishing’s estimated $12 billion in projected revenue for 2019, and where does that rank against other channels?
  2. How much marketing value do public libraries create for publishers through readers’ advisory services, physical shelf and online catalogue visibility, hosted author events, and community book clubs?
  3. How do library patrons discover and acquire the books they read and in which formats, and how does that fit with other media consumption and buying habits?

We’ve taken steps towards helping answer the second and third questions with our 2020 initiatives, while the first one still requires a level of collaboration across the industry that we haven’t seen yet. I’m hopeful that we’ll be in a better position to answer that one in 2021.

Is the Library eBook Market Working? Identifying Areas for Further Investigation

With the obligation to close their doors for the safety of users and staff alike, the ability of libraries to offer services digitally has never been so important.

Libraries have responded, diverting available resources and energies into providing online storytimes and consultations, and developing their presence on social media.

Some have sought to reassign budgets from physical to digital collections, sometimes with supplementary funding offered by public authorities. This experience is, for many, making clear the differences in what libraries’ money can buy in the offline and online worlds, especially as concerns eBooks.

This is not a new concern of course. Libraries have been highlighting concerns about the way the library eLending market has been working for years, with high prices, restrictive terms, and simple non-availability of works all regularly featuring.

While much of the attention has been on ‘trade’ eBooks – those lent out by public libraries – this is an issue that also affects academic libraries (as our interview with Johanna Anderson underlined).

In terms of solutions, the focus has tended to be on copyright, and how to update rules in order to ensure that the provisions that allow for libraries to work with physical books should apply also to electronic ones.

However, copyright – as well as exceptions to it – are a response to problems in a market, either because a public good is not being supplied, or because the structure and operation of the market is working to the disadvantage of one party or another. This, of course, is the job of competition and consumer policy.

Following on from an earlier blog on this site about how competition – or anti-trust – policy applies in the world of libraries, this one looks to explore what evidence we have – and what evidence we might need – in order to encourage competition and markets authorities to look into the way that library eBook lending operates.

To do so, it will look at a number of the steps usually taken in competition investigations in order to assess the need for an intervention.


Are there excessive profits?

A first potential indicator of problems with the market is when producers are making profits that can be considered higher than usual.

The theory at least suggests that if a market is competitive, then high profits will tend to attract more companies. This will generate more competition, which will drive profits down, for the benefit of consumers.

Looking at eBook markets, it does not seem to be the case that ‘trade’ publishers are enjoying huge profits, although the big players have seen rises in recent years, often however on the back of audiobooks.

On the academic side, major publishers do make high profit levels, although again not necessarily just on the back of their eBook operations.

However, profit levels alone are not a sure sign of a competition issue.


Is the market concentrated?

In many investigations, the next place to look in trying to work out whether a market is not working is whether there is a limited number of competitors. A large share of the market held by just one or a few companies could indicate a problem.

When it comes to eBooks, the picture is different for ‘trade’ and academic books. In the case of the former, there are plenty of publishers putting out novels and other materials.

With academic journals, there is a well-documented concentration of much of the market in the hands of a number of publishing companies, and concern every time that there is talk of a merger or take-over.

However, even were one of the big publishing companies to disappear, the market would remain to compare favourably with that for internet providers or airlines in many countries.

Of course, this is to assume that the market is for eBooks in general. Alternatively, we can look at the market for a single book. In this case, the rightholder has a monopoly thanks to copyright.

Clearly this is a violation of perfect competition, but one that – at least theoretically – can be justified in terms of giving the rightholder the time they need to recoup their investments. Whether the current length of copyright terms in international law has anything to do with economic logic is another question.

Crucially, the monopoly awarded to the rightholder of a particular eBook is easier to justify when these are substitutable – i.e. when eBook A by publisher X could broadly be replaced by eBook B by publisher Y.

When, however, this is not the case – i.e. because a student or researcher needs a very specific work, or a library card-holder wants to read the latest bestseller, not something a bit like it – there is more of a challenge.

Another solution would be to allow physical books to compete – for example by allowing a library to digitise a physical copy in their collection, and give access on a one-copy-one-user basis. However, this idea is deeply contested.

Even initiatives focusing on out-of-commerce works, such as Controlled Digital Lending, have led to threats of legal action, while the Hathi Trust’s work to provide digitised copies of books now is largely justified by the fact that access to physical copies is impossible.

Were a competition investigation to be launched, a key question would therefore be how the market is defined, and whether allowing physical books to compete with eBooks could bring a degree more competitiveness to markets for individual works without undermining the possibilities for rightholders to recoup investments.


Are there barriers to entry?

A further step in an assessment of competition is to look at whether there are issues that may be preventing competitors from entering a market, and competing with existing companies by offering cheaper alternatives.

Clearly if we are considering each individual eBook as a separate market, then there is a huge barrier to entry – copyright. But as suggested before, just like other forms of intellectual property, copyright at least originally had a form of economic logic.

But even if we look at academic eBooks as a whole, there can also be challenges. As set out in our interview with Johanna Anderson, publishers can tend to want users to access their eBooks through their platforms.

However, if libraries don’t want to – or can’t – buy access to every platform available, the only alternative  is to buy individual eBooks from vendors, but often at prices which have been set many times higher than those of print equivalents. This serves to push libraries towards publisher platforms, despite the fact that the library may only want a small share of the eBooks available there.

The effect of this is, effectively, to push libraries towards buying access to bigger platforms, potentially at the expense of spending on smaller, newer publishers.

This risks creating a barrier to entry by smaller players (or forcing them out of the market) by making it more difficult for libraries to allocate money more freely between publishers on the basis of what users actually want.

This situation is similar to that already seen with the ‘big deals’ offered for bundles of journals, which a number of countries are beginning to seek to abandon, even at the risk of losing access to content that researchers and students want.

In the trade eBook sector, there can also be issues with barriers to entry, for example when libraries or library systems are obliged to buy a fixed number of books.

The same goes when it is possible to sell bestsellers under terms that mean that they ‘capture’ large share of library budgets, leaving less space for new or emerging voices. In each case, established players gain an advantage that risks creating barriers for others.

A competition investigation here could shed more light on the subject of whether specific practices of bundling, or minimum purchases, have a negative effect on new entrants or customers.


Is there market power?

A final issue to explore, linked to the question of barriers to entry, is whether a particular player enjoys market power.

This implies that one side of the equation (a producer or buyer) has a freedom to change conditions – for example by raising or lowering prices, or imposing tougher or looser terms – and the other has little option but to accept, for example because there is no alternative.

This can be a real concern for libraries faced with demand from users – from readers coming to a public library, to students or researchers at an academic one.

As already underlined in the previous section, the way that the academic eBook market works can make it possible to increase prices steeply while libraries have little option other than to accept, or face frustration from users.

Similarly, the work carried out by the library eLending project in Australia has underlined to what extent libraries’ choice is limited given their need to meet patron demand. As a result, rightholders have a broadly free hand to set higher prices, although of course may themselves lack the information to do so effectively.

The particular situation of libraries – in particular their mission, often set out in law, to meet the information needs of users – can make them particularly vulnerable to exercise of market power.

A competition investigation could take the information already gathered in Australia, and look to understand more broadly the degree to which libraries are constrained in decision-making, and to what extent this is allowing prices and terms for eBooks that would otherwise be impossible.


Clearly, this blog has drawn only on a limited number of examples, and can only point at possibilities, rather than draw any conclusions. Nonetheless, competition investigations into the library market are not a new idea.

In 2018, the European Universities Association proposed one looking at broader scholarly publishing, and a group of individual researchers have sought to launch a case on a specific company, as did UK researchers on the subject of non-disclosure agreements in particular.

So far, eBooks have tended not to attract quite the same attention as other fields, but with it uncertain for how long libraries are going to need to be primarily digital institutions, there may be value in a deeper look.

With public and institutional funding likely to become scarcer in the coming years, ensuring it is well spent is going to be a priority.


[Corrected on 26 May 2020 to underline that the reference to concentration in the academic market should have emphasised journals, rather than books]

Core Public Service, Corporate Social Responsibility? Supporting Libraries, Now and in the Future

Libraries and their users around the world are facing complexity and uncertainty, both in maintaining operations today, and in their future planning.

Clearly a main area of concern is how to reopen and resume services safely for users and staff, given that our understanding of COVID-19 is still developing. Library associations and authorities are working hard to collect and present the latest evidence in order to inform their members.

Two further areas of doubt are around funding, and legal guarantees for library activities and values. With some libraries already having to furlough or lose staff, and a strong likelihood of cuts in future, there will almost certainly be the need to engage in discussions about how – and how much – library services are paid for.

Meanwhile, with the pandemic forcing libraries alongside many others to switch to digital service provision, the legal basis on which libraries can provide access to information, education, research and culture online has become a major topic.

In both cases, there is an underlying question – to what extent is it advisable for libraries to rely on choices made by private actors – companies, philanthropists, others – in order to carry out their work?

This blog looks at the issues.


Complement, don’t Compete: Funding

The most obvious area where the balance between the public and private comes up is in funding. The Public Library Manifesto makes it clear that this should come from local and national governments.

This reflects the point made in the Manifesto that public libraries are there to deliver on a range of public interest goals. Yet the same goes for other types of library – national libraries which safeguard the historical record, academic libraries that enable research, school libraries that support literacy and education and as well as many special libraries.

Part of this is down to the sense that public funding should – ordinarily – be more stable. It is rare – although not unknown – for governments to ‘fail’. It is also the case that when there is a proposal to amend library funding, this should be subject to due process, with opportunities for review and influence.

The focus on public funding is also, arguably, linked to the mandate of many libraries to serve all members of the community without discrimination, just as other public services are expected to do.

In contrast, private actors can face situations that would force them to stop providing support, or simply can change their minds without such strong obligations to explain themselves. Especially when services are offered on a market basis, they can also often be little direct incentive to serve the poorest and most vulnerable.

This is clearly not to exclude the possibility of private funding. Libraries globally have benefitted from engagement with the private sector in order to invest in capital – both buildings and equipment, where local laws allow for this.

Partnerships can enable the provision of new services, either through corporate social responsibility, or an understanding that investing now – for example by offering internet connectivity or coding classes – can build demand later on. Sometimes, even, private funding allows for pilot projects which are then taken over and scaled up with public funding when they show their worth.

This is welcome, and we can be grateful to library benefactors for all they do. What is clear, however, is that this support should be additional. It should complement existing public (or institutional, in the case of academic libraries for example) funding, rather than replacing it, in order to ensure that libraries retain their universal, public service focus.


Guarantees, not just Goodwill: Laws

The second area where the relationship between the public and private comes up is in law, and in particular, how much legal certainty libraries and their users have in what they do.

A key function of the law is to step in when there is a risk that, otherwise, people’s rights may not be respected. This can happen when one actor is stronger than another – because they are bigger, richer, have more information, or indeed have been granted monopoly powers by other laws.

Key laws for libraries include copyright and privacy. In the case of copyright, most countries – and indeed international law – recognise that there is a need to guarantee the possibility to carry out certain activities – such as quotation, preservation or education – as exceptions to the monopoly rights offered to rightholders.

Yet due to the concept of freedom of contract – i.e. that the terms of contracts override what may exist elsewhere in the law – these exceptions frequently do not apply in the case of digital content (usually acquired or accessed under a contract (or licence)). While some countries – including those in the European Union – have moved to limit the possibility for contracts to override exceptions, his is far from universal.

The impact of this has been clear during the COVID-19 Pandemic, with contract terms limiting the possibility for libraries to give remote access to works that could have been accessed on-site.

While there have been welcome initiatives from many publishers and rightholders to provide access, it seems contrary to the objective of exceptions in the first place to need to rely on goodwill, rather than legal guarantees in order to be able to support, education, research and access to culture. At least ensuring that the law offers a back-stop, where voluntary action is not taken, seems necessary.

Privacy too is a major concern. With many services collecting data from users – either in place of, or in addition to, fees – there is a particular need for effective laws that protect against unauthorised and/or unethical retention and use.

With a much greater share of teaching, research and simple communication needing to take place online currently – in particular outside of campus networks – the risks of tracking usage and behaviours, as well as vulnerability to cybercrime, grow.

There is therefore a pressing need for companies to be held to high standards, with the law providing a guarantee for privacy. It should not be the case that users need to rely on the goodwill of private actors not to gather private data without full and meaningful consent.


Attitudes towards reliance on private funding and goodwill to support libraries will vary from culture to culture, and depend very much on the prevalent political philosophy.

Nonetheless, as highlighted at least the Public Library Manifesto, there should not be any question of excluding public funding. As a result, it is more a case of finding the right balance.

The COVID-19 pandemic – and its aftermath – is likely to force reflection on this balance. It will be important to ensure that we can make the case a situation where libraries can offer a stable, public-focused universal service, and can rely on the law in order to fulfil their missions.

Advoc8: Now and Next Part 2 – What Might a Library Advocacy Agenda for the Post-Pandemic World Look Like?

In our first ‘Now and Next’ blog, we explored a number of potential trends that are likely to shape the library field as it – and the communities it serves – emerge from the restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just as in the first blog, it is clear that we are still in the midst of the crisis. Even as some countries are able to relax controls on people’s lives and activities, others are prolonging them. In some cases, we have seen decisions to re-impose them, as the disease has returned. It will likely be a long time until we can talk about a post-pandemic world.

Nonetheless, as calls grow for clarity about how governments plan to go about returning to normal, it will make sense to engage with governments. Indeed, this is likely to be particularly necessary in the light of the serious economic impact COVID-19 is already having.

As institutions which do depend on the financial health of the governments, institutions or other organisations that support them, it will be as important as ever to ensure libraries – and their values – are understood as having an essential role in the recovery, or even in creating better societies and economies in future.

We can only do this by reaching out and making the case. This blog therefore looks to explore potential advocacy agendas in the immediate, medium and longer-term. In this, the short-term is defined as now – with libraries in many countries physically closed. The medium-term is the situation as libraries start to re-open and restrictions are lifted. The long-term refers to the time when the pandemic can be declared over, and only minimal if any rules are in place to address the spread of the disease.

For each, the blog suggests eight key possible messages. Do you agree? Have we missed anything? We welcome your comments!


The Short-Term: Provide Relief, Support Research

  • Copyright should not become a barrier: it should not be the case that just because a library has closed its doors, its users cannot draw on its resources. Governments should make it clear that at a time that physical access is often impossible – for everything from research to storytimes – digital alternatives can take its place.
  • Licensing terms should not override the public interest: where the terms of licences under which libraries access content prevent their use, rightholders should be ready to introduce necessary flexibilities to allow libraries to carry out their missions. Where this does not happen, libraries should be able to bypass licensing terms in the course of their work where this does not cause unreasonable harm to rightholders.
  • Libraries need to be enabled to support their communities: faced with increasing demand for digital content, some governments have already been ready to increase acquisitions budgets. More broadly, other restrictions – such as on offering public access to WiFi, or on lending library equipment or materials to vulnerable groups – should be relaxed if these create problems.
  • COVID-19 must not become an excuse for bad government: many countries have adopted a state of emergency in order to allow steps to be taken against COVID-19. However, the application of these powers should not lead to decisions in other areas being taken without proper scrutiny, and all decision-making needs to be properly documented for future accountability.
  • Restrictions on free expression and access to information must be kept to a minimum: some governments have moved to limit free expression as part of their response, while social media companies are also increasing their efforts to close sites disseminating deliberately false information. Such restrictions should be avoided if other means of achieving the same goals are available, and otherwise applied carefully and proportionately. It is better to promote positive interventions such as media and information literacy.
  • The cultural sector needs support to avoid disaster: while some in the cultural field are benefitting strongly from increased demand for their work (especially digital content), others – especially those who rely on performances or physical visitors – are suffering. Faced with ongoing costs, these require support if they are to avoid having to give up and close their doors for good.
  • Greater dependence on online tools cannot come at the expense of rights: there has been an explosive rise in use of digital tools to work and communicate. However, we need to be vigilant to ensure that this does not increase the risk of cybersecurity breaches or other losses of personal data.
  • Open science should be the default: there have been welcome moves to adopt open science practices in research specifically around COVID-19, with the National Library of Medicine in the United States creating the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD). These should be expanded and supported by governments, and reach out to related disciplines in order to help ensure better informed responses to the pandemic.


The Medium-Term: Returning to Not-Quite-Normal, Safely

  • Official approaches to re-opening need to take safety into account: the news of libraries being able to reopen will be both a source of encouragement and worry for many. Often small, not necessarily set out to allow people to maintain social distance, and offering a lot of direct personal support, it should be clear that libraries are high social-interaction spaces. Where reopening does happen, it should be based on a sound understanding of how libraries really work.
  • Exceptional measures on access to content should not be lifted until the need for them is over: many of the special measures put in place, for example, by publishers to offer remote access to books and articles, or online story-times, are time-limited. While some have noted that their application can be extended, it will be important to keep up the pressure to maintain them until all library users are able to make use of library services again as before.
  • There needs to be meaningful investment in helping learners to catch up: the internet has allowed far more teaching and learning to take place during the pandemic than could have been imagined even a few years ago. However, many have underlined that it is still not the same as being in class, and it will be necessary to help learners catch up, especially those in more vulnerable situations. Governments need to have a plan for this.
  • Insofar as they affect access to government information, states of emergency should be lifted as soon as possible: states of emergency should never be indefinite, given the threat they pose to fundamental rights. In particular, it is important for information about government responses to the virus to be made open, in order to inform researchers as well as journalists.
  • Ensure that efforts continue to help those who will need to be subject to restrictions for longer: the loosening of restrictions is likely to move at a different pace for different groups, with already marginalised populations – older persons, those with disabilities, or prison populations to name just a few – likely to need to wait longer. As the rest of society moves back as close to normality as possible, we cannot forget those for whom this isn’t the case.
  • Ensure that libraries are supported to take on the upcoming rise in demand: it seems likely that not only will libraries welcome back people who have missed their resources, services and spaces, but also those needing to use them to get their lives back on track after losing jobs and even homes. Libraries have a proven track record here, but scaling this up will require continued support.
  • Ensuring that lifting restrictions on movement doesn’t mean new restrictions on privacy: the potential use of tracking apps to contribute to the safe lifting of limitations has received a lot of limitations. If these are introduced, it will be important to protect privacy, ensure that users consciously opt in, and to ensure that no more information is collected and retained than strictly necessary.
  • Continue to promote open science, and invest in discoverability and interoperability: managing the lifting of restrictions is going to require extensive use of research, drawing on a variety of disciplines. We will need to strengthen the infrastructures and resources for open science, allowing researchers to work globally, and across different areas of study, with meaningful tools for discovery and analysis.


The Long-Term: Build Back Better

  • Ensure copyright and competition laws are truly fit for the digital age: the crisis has brought into very stark relief the difference between what copyright laws permit as concerns digital and non-digital uses, and the degree to which libraries have had to rely on rightholder goodwill – rather than the law – in order to continue to fulfil their missions. This should not continue. Moreover, the fact that access to and use of digital content tends to be shaped by the choices of rightholders, rather than the law, has also helped underline the need to look at these markets from a competition angle.
  • Mobilise libraries in the wider effort to rebuild lives, societies and economies: over recent years, libraries globally have worked to realise their potential as a key part of the social infrastructure of their communities. In addition to all they do to promote wellbeing as cultural spaces and centres, they can also act as platforms and partners for efforts to support employment, entrepreneurship and education. As such, they need to be part of relevant government strategies at all levels.
  • Ensure proper scrutiny of decision-making during the crisis: governments at the moment are taking crucial decisions about societies and economies, which may have significant and long-lasting effects. In order to be able to hold them to account, we will need to ensure that researchers, the press, and the public have the access they need to information to allow them to participate fully in a healthy democratic life.
  • Learn from the experience to promote inclusion and well-being for all: the pandemic has helped underline the vulnerability of many groups, whose living conditions, livelihoods or other characteristics have made them more susceptible to the pandemic and/or harder hit by its consequences. These should lead us to design policies and programmes in general that are truly inclusive and pro-equity in future.
  • Achieve universal meaningful connectivity: having access to the internet made it possible to continue with more aspects of life during the crisis that previously could not have been imagined. However, this has only been the case for the half of the world which enjoy connectivity. Even those who are online do not necessarily have the skills and confidence necessary to make the most if it. We need to invest in helping everyone become active and capable internet users.
  • Invest in effective public (health) information systems: one key lesson from the crisis has been the importance of developing a meaningful infrastructure for providing access to information to people. This is not just a case of transmitting information, but rather being able to listen and adapt messages to ensure they have most impact, as well as to build literacy skills for all. Libraries can be part of this.
  • Move to a new level in open science and collaborative research: the potential of open science to inform better policymaking has been clear in the current crisis. It should become the norm, with meaningful investment in platforms, reforms to assessment and recognition frameworks, and careful efforts to ensure that researchers and readers do not risk being locked into any individual providers’ products. Cross-border research should be enabled by appropriate international action on copyright reform.
  • Don’t forget other challenges!: clearly COVID-19 is the focus of attention at the moment. Nonetheless, there are other challenges facing the world at the moment, not least climate change, and the rest of the United Nations 2030 Agenda. Clearly, the way we address these may change, but the underlying priorities remain if we are to ensure that we don’t just return to normal, but to better.


Library Stat of the Week #14: Four out of five loans at the median national library are in electronic format

In the last two library stats of the week, we have looked at the relationship between digital and physical loans from public and academic libraries.

Based on countries for which data is available, it is clear that there is a big difference in use of eBooks and other electronic formats. In public libraries, loans of electronic books and documents represents less than 14% of all loans, while in academic libraries, the figure is more than 94%.

What about national libraries?

Often the biggest library in the country, they hold very significant collections, thanks both to legal deposit (where this is in place) and proactive collection policies. As such, they are a critical resource for researchers, educators, and all others simply with an interest in culture and history. Some are even explicitly combined with public or university library functions.

The resources they hold can be subject to particular rules, especially legal deposit copies of works. In some countries, for example, it may be possible to send physical copies of works but not digital ones. In others, there is digital access, but only in specific places.

Clearly, at a time of COVID-19, where digital tools provide the only means of accessing content, there is a need for laws and practices that allow this. In general, of course, more digital access to national library collections contributes to their mission to facilitate research, education and access to culture, without people having to travel.

So what was the situation before the crisis? IFLA’s Library Map of the World offers insights into this, with almost forty countries sharing data on how many books, eBooks, documents and downloads they offer.

Overall, it is clear that many national libraries have already seized the possibilities that digital is offering. Across countries for which data is available, the median share of digital loans and downloads in total loans was just under 80% – this was the case in Malaysia.

This means that almost four times as many books and documents were being shared electronically than physically. In 13 of the 38 countries, national libraries were sharing over ten times as many works in digital form than in physical. Nonetheless, in fifteen the share of digital books and documents in the total was less than 50%.

To some extent, as set out above, differences between national libraries may be down to the rules they face and the nature of their collections. What is certain is that in current circumstances, there is a real value in finding ways to facilitate access to the works that they hold.


Find out more on the Library Map of the World, where you can download key library data in order to carry out your own analysis! See our other Library Stats of the Week! We are happy to share the data that supported this analysis on request.