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Originally published Friday, February 1, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: Publishers’ fear of e-books is hurting libraries

Major publishers continue to boycott or significantly limit titles available in digital format, which hurts public libraries, writes guest columnist Alex Alben.

Special to The Times

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WHEN I was 7, my second-grade teacher escorted our class to the school library and instructed each of us to pick a book to check out. Unfamiliar with the concept that a library was a place where one could wander and discover titles to one’s heart’s delight, I looked up directly from my seat and chose a book about the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.

I returned to the same spot the following week and selected The West Point Story. For half a year, my reading was confined to a particular shelf, before I realized that a library is a place to expand one’s horizons.

Due to a ballot measure approved in August, 15 more branches of the Seattle Public Library will open their doors on Sundays. Now 26 branches will give Seattleites Sunday access to the books, CDs, audio books and DVDs. This access should include more access to e-books, but major publishers continue to boycott or significantly limit titles available in digital format.

Libraries sit at the intersection of the new digital age. While libraries continue to fulfill their mission as the repositories of printed books and periodicals, they increasingly have come to play a new role as provider of digital access to those who don’t have access to high-speed broadband or personal computers. The American Library Association reports that as of last year, 39 percent of libraries offer e-readers to patrons for checkout, enabling readers to access content in digital format.

The digital mission of our local libraries is underscored by the fact that 62,000 people last year used King County’s Overdrive system to read more than 1 million e-books and 290,000 audio books. E-book lending has grown at a rate of 300 percent over the past two years.

If this trend continues, our system will soon be handling e-book lending in roughly equal proportion to physical book lending. Librarians handle all of these forms of media, as well as instructing patrons on how to use computers, e-readers and the Internet. Our local libraries should invest in providing e-readers to patrons when they visit local libraries. Perhaps Amazon.com could be convinced to help defray this cost.

The concept of lending an e-book illustrates a paradox of our digital-media age. Unencumbered by a physical form, an e-book can be copied thousands of times and lent to thousands of users. Yet the current digital-rights-management system required by publishers has converted an e-book into a license that mimics the one-at-a-time lending profile that libraries use for physical print books. Because e-books are frictionless, they don’t wear out, and could be licensed many more times than their equivalent print editions.

Aside from small pilot programs, wary publishers, such as Simon & Schuster and Macmillan, will not even allow e-book licensing to libraries, for fear of cannibalizing print-book sales.

The publisher argument against e-book library lending parallels the fear of copyright owners against traditional libraries. All material housed in a library replaces — or at least displaces — sales of those items in their for-profit channels. Yet the public mission of the library system and the civic benefit of promoting reading and discovery of new authors has always convinced publishers to make their works available, at a price, to public libraries.

Because e-books have a lower cost of production for publishers, libraries should receive discounted pricing to acquire licenses to lend e-books to their patrons. And if e-books are circulated at a higher volume per unit than print books, which appears to be the case across the country, then libraries should not be penalized for the reduced friction of getting literary and nonfiction works into the hands of hungry readers. Academic books and textbooks may require a different pricing system.

Authors will ultimately benefit by exposure to this growing audience and piracy will be mitigated by availability of works in a legitimate market. Expanding the joy of reading to the new age has become a vital component of the mission of our public libraries. Publishers should get on board.

Alex Alben lives in Seattle. His new book is “Analog Days — How Technology Rewrote Our Future.” He can be reached at alexalben99@yahoo.com.

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