Should Libraries Be Political?

Starting November 1, 2019, Macmillan will place a two-month embargo on libraries purchasing new e-book titles.  Libraries will be allowed to buy one perpetual access copy of new titles for half price ($30) during the first two months after release.  Once two months have passed, libraries can buy additional copies at full price ($60) for two years or 52 lends, whichever occurs first.  The move is intended to pressure library patrons to purchase the book instead of borrowing it, since wait lists times are likely to be astronomically high for popular new titles, especially for patrons in library systems that serve large numbers of people.  The problem, of course, is that this move disproportionately affects those who do not have the economic means to buy e-books, and those who may not find it as convenient or comfortable to borrow physical books instead.  In short, the move by Macmillan is a direct threat to the mission of libraries to provide equal access. 

Many library systems have spoken up, writing blog posts to their patrons, or even writing opinion pieces for their local newspapers (such as this one, in which Nashville Public Library director Kent Oliver provocatively suggests that restricting libraries’ ability to provide equal access could be considered a form of censorship).  My library, meanwhile, has remained silent.  I even had to inform a couple employees that the embargo exists.  However, since libraries exist to serve the community, and the Macmillan embargo is an attack on their ability to do so, does that mean that my library has an obligation to inform the public of the embargo?  I believe it does.

Libraries are supposed to advocate for their communities. The best way to do so in this situation is to inform the public of an issue that affects them, so they can join libraries in pressuring Macmillan to cancel the embargo.  Because if the Macmillan embargo goes into effect, libraries will not be able to fulfill their mission of providing everyone with the same opportunities and content, regardless of income. If the Macmillan embargo goes into effect, the other Big Five publishers could begin embargoes of their own.  The potential effects of this embargo could severely limit the ability of libraries to provide materials to their users–and the public deserves the chance to change that future.

Perhaps my library fears to appear too political.  Perhaps they feel it is safer to share only positive news and to remain silent about controversial topics.  But change does not happen by remaining silent.  The community has a right to know when their access is being threatened, and that they have the power to do something about it.  It is time for libraries to speak up.

16 thoughts on “Should Libraries Be Political?

  1. Beth Tabler says:

    I hate this with every molecule in my body. Libraries are one of the greatest inventions to bridge the gap of economic disparity in society. Pressuring patrons to purchase books by making it more difficult for libraries to obtain copies is a scary slippery slope.


    • Krysta says:

      Yes, one of the problems with not speaking up against this now is that the other Big Five publishers could follow suit! Libraries are pretty radical in their stance that everyone deserves equal access despite income level. This is clearly a threat to their mission since now only those with money can get the book right after publication.

      And the whole e-book model for libraries is weird anyway. HarperCollins has reasonable prices where libraries get 26 checkouts. Most other publishers have a 2-year expiration date for their licenses (at a greater price), meaning the license can expire even if no one checked out the book. But libraries are hurting their sales?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    I think it’s important for libraries to share this so 1) patrons know why there are enormous wait lists for new releases–and it’s not the library’s fault and 2) so individuals can contact Macmillan if they disagree with the embargo. It’s clear that Macmillan has decided they do not care if libraries/librarians are upset by their decision to restrict access to books; they clearly believe that libraries are a threat to their bottom line and they don’t really like libraries anyway. So who cares if the libraries whine? Macmillan needs to hear that individual book purchasers are not a fan of the decision–and that can’t happen if individuals don’t know.

    I wouldn’t necessarily even consider sharing this information “political.” It’s a factual statement of how access to books in libraries will change because of Macmillan’s decision, and it seems reasonable to inform patrons of it.


    • Krysta says:

      I agree! If libraries can’t provide content to their patrons–libraries are the ones who will be the targets of angry patrons, not Macmillan! They need to let people know they want to provide access, but can’t.

      I think it’s political in the sense that the concept of equal access is pretty radical in a capitalist society. Just the idea that everyone deserves the same opportunities and the same information, regardless of income. Whereas the Macmillan stance is clearly saying they think people with more purchasing power should get the book first/faster.


  3. Sammie @ The Writerly Way says:

    This makes me so sad. On the one hand, I understand that companies need to make money and they’re going to do whatever they can to up their profits. On the other … libraries serve such a vital function, and I feel like this is just casting aside a large section of the population and saying, “Can’t afford a book? Too bad.” Which is sad.

    I’m pretty good financially. I mean, we’re not living week-to-week. Maybe month to month. And given how poor my county is, where most people live day to day financially, I feel pretty lucky to have gotten to this point. I don’t often buy brand-new books because they’re just not an expense I can often justify. $15 – $20 is two to three meals for my family, depending on what we’re eating. Or it’s our water bill for the month. Or it’s that much more on our loans. Everything is a trade-off.

    I mean, this isn’t going to hurt those with financial means to go out and buy all the books they want, because they’re doing that anyway. I preorder a couple of books a year that I’m dying to have and that’s pretty much it. That decision isn’t affected by the libraries and whether or not they’ll get something in. It’s affected by how much I want to read this particular book and whether I actually want it on my shelf to own.

    I know that I’ve particularly gotten stuck on wait lists for a loooong time (and some, I just won’t even request because it’s already 100 people deep and nope). If you hadn’t shared this, I wouldn’t know anything was up, because I don’t pay attention. And our local library is soooo bad about sharing information like this. I sometimes get frustrated with how long it takes them to get physical books in (while reminding myself that they’re a teensy library and I should show some amount of patience). But our ebook system is wrapped up in a regional Overdrive, so it’s even more frustrating when you’ve got a ton of libraries aggregated and the books still aren’t there. I mean, now I know why, in some instances, and I’m so thankful for that!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I agree so much! This only hurts readers who can’t afford to buy the e-books! Oh, and the regional Overdrive issue is such a mess! I’ve read a bunch of op-eds with librarians discussing how whole STATES share an Overdrive system. If Macmillan doesn’t modify their terms, that means ONE copy of an e-book for an entire STATE for the first eight weeks after release. And they don’t see how that’s harmful to readers?

      This is truly a bizarre move. I never expected to see a publisher basically come out and say they want to annoy library patrons so much patrons will buy the book. That…makes me want to not buy their books, actually.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Honestly, I don’t think this is political- but maybe that’s just me showing my extreme bias towards libraries 😉 But really, I just see libraries as a great leveller for everyone to get access to books and education (which in turn benefits society). This is just a really depressing outcome, because it doesn’t seem like people understand the value of *everyone* getting an education.


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