The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the importance for libraries to be able to provide services to users through digital channels. As such, it has thrown a new light on many of the questions that already existed about whether, and under what terms, libraries can acquire and give access to eBooks and other resources.

The LIbrary Association of Ireland has released a statement highlighting concerns and hopes for future action in order to ensure that libraries are able to carry out their missions digitally, during COVID-19 and beyond.

We interviewed Marian Higgins (President, Library Association of Ireland), Cathal  McCauley (President-Elect, Library Association of Ireland) and Stuart Hamilton (Library ASsociation of Ireland) to find out more: 

1.What has the impact of COVID-19 been on Irish libraries’ ability to offer access to information?

With physical buildings being closed, there has been a rapid pivot in the library sector to provide information electronically, and demand for online resources such as eBooks, has soared. For example, we have seen triple digit percentage increases in new users of eBook services in the public library sector, and have had to work hard to find the financial resources to meet this new demand.

2. How are current practices around eResources affecting the ability of libraries to deliver on their mission to provide access to the materials that users need?

First of all, we don’t own any electronic resources that we spend money on, we only license them. We are at the mercy of restrictive licensing terms and high prices, and titles we need are often not available in eBook format. This situation adversely affects libraries’ ability to delivery high quality services to users during the COVID period when they have never been more important or necessary.

3. You suggest in the statement that the market for eResources isn’t working. What stands in the way of this?

Despite talk of industry standards, there is a lack of standardisation across the publishing sector and a lack of transparency around pricing and licensing models which makes it very difficult for libraries to provide the services they want, and it makes it equally as difficult for readers to understand why eBook titles are not available. In some cases, libraries will purchase titles as part of a deal that are then removed at a later date, with little or no warning. These titles then need to be purchased again in the future, under different terms or at higher prices.

4. Compared to the print book market, how well regulated would you say the market is for electronic resources?

There appears to be a complete lack of regulation, with wildly varying prices. If you applied the same conditions to print books that publishers apply to eBooks, books would disappear from the shelves in X months’ time, or once they had been borrowed X times. It’s extremely variable, lacking standards and thoroughly unregulated.

5. What reasons may lie behind the high prices being charged for some eResources, or simply their unavailability?

It is very hard to justify the high price of eBooks due to the lack of transparency around pricing models and licensing conditions. The apparently arbitrary nature of what is available for sale in eBook format and what is not makes it difficult for libraries to make sustainable purchasing decisions, and also causes difficulties in explaining to users why certain titles are not available.

6. Libraries have a well-recognised role in the book market – is there any reason why this shouldn’t be the case in the market for eResources?

No. Libraries foster a love of reading that leads to borrowing, but also book purchasing by users. If anything it is even more important that we have a role in the market for eBooks as users find it more confusing and we have an obligation to provide our users with access to information, regardless of the format.

7. It seems likely that the increased share of eResources in libraries’ overall offer to users is here to stay. If nothing changes, is this viable for library budgets?

Due to the unregulated nature of this market, the lack of transparency, and the current COVID crisis, it’s the wild west out there. This situation is not viable from a library point of view, it’s not sustainable and in many cases we are constantly spending money to ensure that titles don’t disappear from our collections.

8. Who is likely to be affected by this situation?

If increasingly amounts of library funds are devoted to online resources as prices continue to rise, then it is inevitable that money will be taken from other parts of library budgets, such as book funds, programming and activities. Service delivery will inevitably suffer.  Even those institutions who are able to purchase eBooks will find they are getting worse value for money due to increasing costs and restrictive licensing conditions. The overall effect on library services will be negative and sustained.

9. What can governments do to improve things?

A fair and transparent investigation into current eBook pricing, availability and licensing terms would be a great response. We would like to see an EU policy that stabilises the market, makes it fair and transparent, and recognises the importance of fair and equitable access to eBooks for citizens. We have established these frameworks for print resources, it is now time to do the same for digital.

10. What scope is there for work with rightholders?

There is always scope to work with rightsholders, but there has to be an honest conversation about the unsustainable situation that currently exists in the eBook and eResources market for libraries. Governments should step in and facilitate this conversation, and it has to happen soon.