Digital publications cost a worry

The Okanagan Regional Library, which operates 31 branches around the Valley, is expressing concern about how much it costs the system to purchase digital products. In this file photo from 2016, Gillian Barany uses a tablet at the downtown Kelowna library.

High licensing fees make it expensive and challenging for Okanagan libraries to offer eBooks to their patrons, local politicians are being told.

The rules set by publishers for the dissemination of digital products restrict the number of people who download the items, says Don Nettleton, chief executive officer of the Okanagan Regional Library.

“Multinational publishers are limiting access to digital publications by Canadian libraries, and, when a publication is made available, are making it prohibitively expensive to acquire most digital publications,” Nettleton writes in a letter to leaders of the Valley communities served by the ORL.

“These restrictions and costs make it difficult for libraries to provide important services in our communities that our customers want and need,” Nettleton says.

The ORL has an annual budget of about $18 million, most of which comes directly from a tax paid by local property owners.

Of that, $2.5 million is spent annually on acquisitions to keep the 31 branches stocked with new items.

To illustrate the concerns about the cost of digital products, Nettleton cites a recent example with a book called ‘Kingdom of the Blind’, by Canadian author Louise Penny.

The publisher sells it to libraries at $13 for a paperback version, $22 for a hardcover, and $60 for a digital format. But the digital format can only be checked out electronically 52 times, or for a two year period, whichever comes first.

Paperbacks and hardcovers typically last for two to four years before their deteriorating condition requires them to be removed from shelves.

The end result, Nettleton says, is that the per-borrowing cost of a digital book is much higher than for a traditional paperback or hardcover.  

“Restrictions on libraries accessing digital publications - including both books and newspapers - hampers our ability to provide modern, digitized services,” Nettleton says.

Directors of the ORL board, which is made up of Valley politicians, hope the federal government will find a way to increase library access to digital publications.

Similar concerns about the high price and restrictive terms of use with digital publications have been raised by the Canadian Urban Library Council.

Some popular books sell for $22 in hardcover but as much as $100 in digital form, with each virtual copy of the eBook available for download on only one device at at time, the council says.

“We face excessively high prices and restrictive models for these eBooks,” Sharon Day, spokeswoman for the council, said last December.

In the ORL system, a total of 519,000 — eBooks and audio books were checked out last year, up 47 per cent from 2016.

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