It should go without saying, but it’s worth shouting from the rooftops every now and then: Libraries are important! While all libraries, from the largest city libraries to the smallest local libraries, provide a diverse array of vital community services, perhaps their most important role is to preserve culturally and historically valuable works and to provide their communities with access to those works. Delivering many of these services has proven to be a challenge for libraries in the 21st century, now that our lives are fully entangled with the internet and access to knowledge happens through digital technologies like electronic books (eBooks).
As is often the case in other areas of public concern, regulatory volatility coupled with the glacial pace of legal development has created obstacles for libraries seeking to fulfill their missions. Two key challenges for libraries are (1) their ability to access (and provide access to) quality, affordable broadband, and (2) their ability to expand the traditional library practice of owning and lending out physical works into the digital world. Policymakers must pursue sensible broadband and copyright policies to help libraries further their service to the public interest. This includes providing libraries with adequate funding for broadband and the freedom to adopt and employ technologies (such as controlled digital lending of works) that allow them to serve their patrons within the confines of current law. If these measures are left untaken, libraries are at risk of being unable to provide the benefits to individuals in the digital age that they have provided for centuries.
Libraries need quality, affordable broadband to serve their communities in the digital age.
There is much more to library services than basic preservation and access to physical works. Libraries also provide internet access for those who lack home broadband, help to close the digital divide by promoting internet adoption, and offer digital learning opportunities like occupational training and retraining. Library patrons use libraries to apply for jobs and receive educational enrichment. In addition, numerous library-specific community services are happening in localities around the country. Public libraries here in Washington D.C., for example, host a diverse offering of book clubs for bibliophiles to gather and discuss their favorite topics, from cookbooks to queer fiction. Every kind of community across the country benefits from this access to knowledge regardless of race, gender identity, location, or socioeconomic status.
Libraries need quality, affordable broadband internet access to provide nearly all of their community services. While many branches lack such access, libraries in rural America have it particularly tough. Almost 20 million people lack access to adequate broadband service in rural areas, and nearly a third of rural Americans do not have access to broadband at home. While this digital divide affects everyone, it disproportionately impacts communities of color, particularly in rural areas. Libraries play a key role as “anchor institutions” in closing the rural broadband gap not only by providing direct internet access to those most affected, such as seniors and job seekers, but also by acting as a hub around which to extend additional broadband deployment to local residences and businesses. Traditionally, the Federal Communications Commission’s Universal Service Fund (USF) has funded broadband deployment to underserved areas. Unfortunately, despite 42% of libraries having internet speeds slower than 10Mbps, the Trump administration’s FCC has now proposed to implement a cap on the USF, which would curtail libraries’ ability to close the rural digital divide.
Bridging the digital divide can be accomplished in part by connecting anchor institutions like libraries together. A recent report by CTC Technology & Energy and the SHLB Coalition concluded that connecting anchor institutions would bring 95% of the U.S. population within the ZIP Code of an anchor’s broadband. The FCC’s current proposal to cap the USF is a step in the wrong direction as it risks underfunding certain programs like E-rate, which provides much-needed broadband subsidies for libraries and schools. Instead of jeopardizing the critical role libraries are playing in closing the digital divide, we should be empowering them.
Limiting the broadband deployment challenge to simply serving libraries and other anchor institutions could also prevent libraries from evolving their services fully into the digital age. Lack of broadband access in the home limits the benefit of the digital services libraries can offer to those who can afford the cost of in-home broadband connectivity. Just take a look at the long lines to use a computer in a public library today and you will see families and users who could benefit from hours of library services a day, instead of a rationed amount of digital media time based on the physical limitation of connecting in the library building. With universal access to high-speed broadband, libraries could transition resources to their digital archives and online services that can be accessed by more people through a decentralized internet instead of maintaining large banks of computers to meet the needs of every patron.
Copyright policy should facilitate and promote the use of digital library technologies that benefit the public interest.
Broadband connectivity at home may give patrons access to library archives and services, but without the ability to freely lend the materials libraries possess, their communities, and especially low-income, rural, and other marginalized communities, will lose out on access to literally a world of information and content.
Today’s libraries must meet surging demand among their communities for access to eBooks, audiobooks, and other materials. It used to be the case that libraries could just purchase more copies of in-demand titles to meet their users’ needs. As libraries move toward digital copies, however, they own less and less of their collection. Instead, they must license these digital works subject to contract terms which they cannot meaningfully negotiate, and which often force them to pay three to five times the amount that consumers pay, all for limited (usually two-year) access to the work. Sometimes library patrons simply lose access to materials as they become unaffordable. To add insult to injury, at least one major publisher has now placed a two-month embargo on library eBooks across all of its imprints. In other words, libraries are limited to lending out one digital copy in the first eight weeks of a title’s release, when demand for the title is at its peak. Libraries are likely to respond by waiting out the two-month embargo to gauge demand, a practice that will even under the best of circumstances delay their users’ access to popular titles and deprive publishers and authors of a reliable revenue stream.
We should ensure that libraries can use technologies to best serve their communities in the 21st century by pursuing sensible copyright policy. Increasingly, libraries are lending out digital versions of works in their collection just like they do for physical works. This practice, called controlled digital lending (CDL), is a powerful tool to bridge the gap between print and electronic resources. CDL addresses the “20th Century Book Problem” where books published in the 20th century are generally unavailable in digital format. It also can help to combat the spread of misinformation online by providing access to quality, repudiable sources of information online, including turning all of the Wikipedia links blue. Policymakers should not hinder the development and spread of this great new technology, and every effort should be made to allow CDL to flourish regardless of a library’s size or location.
In addition, libraries should not be subject to unfair pricing of digital content from the highly concentrated publishing industry. Nobody wins when libraries can’t offer popular new titles to their users because they can’t afford to pay the publishers for eBooks. Policymakers should be aware of the power imbalances between publishers and libraries and refrain from pursuing policies that will either entrench or exacerbate the problem.
Let’s help libraries help us.
Whether it’s providing digital literacy classes, hosting book clubs, or lending out cultural and educational materials for communities of all kinds across the country, libraries ensure that our future is connected and informed. Let’s help them keep it that way by pursuing sensible broadband and copyright policies like universal service and controlled digital lending to promote access to knowledge for all in the 21st century and beyond.
Image credit: Lester Public Library