To the surprise of many readers, public library e-book "shelves" now sport gaping holes. The Witness by Nora Roberts? Unseen. The Lost Years by Mary Higgins Clark? Missing. Drop Dead Healthy by A.J. Jacobs? DOA.
None of these bestsellers is available through your library's thoughtfully developed online collections. You may think that your library simply hasn't bought them yet, or that our shrinking budgets kept us from providing the e-books people are demanding. But the truth is that for the first time, libraries are unable to purchase some materials on behalf of our communities.
Right now, several of the largest trade publishers (the Big Six) refuse to sell to us. As a result, libraries - and ultimately the millions of people who turn to us for a growing range of materials - are not getting a fair deal. This means that while the large majority of libraries are investing in e-book collections, the universe of options available has shrunk and our collections are increasingly skewed.
At some level, we can understand the uncertainty. These publishers - including Simon & Schuster, Macmillan and Penguin- are sorting out how to best compete in this rapidly shifting landscape. They are considering changing markets, new competitors, and security in the cloud, to name a few.
On the other hand, publishers like Random House, HarperCollins and hundreds of smaller and independent presses have figured it out with libraries. Our most purchased and circulated titles include the popular The Help by Kathryn Stockett and The Litigators by John Grisham. A recent report found that more than half of all library users report purchasing books by an author they were introduced to in the library.
Libraries help readers find authors, and authors find readers. We do this by selecting locally relevant materials, and through author readings, recommendations, book clubs and other collaborations with authors and publishers. Libraries also are engaged in growing and supporting the next generations of readers - encouraging children and young adults to read for fun.
Since the 1990s, we have learned valuable lessons about the "digital divide" - namely that our public libraries have become even more important in ensuring everyone has access to technology resources and the wealth of online resources, as well as the skills to thrive online. Visits to libraries - both in person and on line - have grown every year over the past two decades, as we also continue to circulate more books, audio and video. Libraries have been central to complementing our public education system and ensuring access to information for all people.
Similarly, our nation cannot afford to leave anyone on the wrong side of an emerging content divide if we hope to continue to foster literacy, creativity and innovation.
The American Library Association has reached out to many of these publishers to find solutions that work for all parties - authors, publishers, libraries and - most importantly - readers today and tomorrow. The discussions have been encouraging, but our communities need real progress sooner than later. Let's encourage EVERY publisher to allow libraries to lend e-books so we may finally fill our virtual bookshelves and realize our mission of access to all.
Molly Raphael is the president of the American Library Association (ALA), the oldest and largest library association in the world. Its mission is to promote the highest quality library and information services and public access to information for all.
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