Liberal arts college libraries take on publishers over ebooks

By Carl Straumsheim, for Inside Higher Ed

March 31, 2014


Library directors at 66 liberal arts colleges in the US have called for academic libraries to reject licensing agreements with publishers that impose restrictions on how ebooks can be accessed and shared.

In a statement released by the Oberlin Group, a consortium of 80 liberal arts college libraries, the directors point to the “ecosystem of sharing” that academic libraries at small colleges depend on to plug gaps in the resources they offer - services such as interlibrary loans, for example.

“This system now faces an existential threat,” the statement reads. “The threat is simple: contractual agreements for electronic books regularly forbid sharing those publications with persons outside the licensing institutions.”

Libraries accept licensing agreements - and whatever restrictions that come with them - “at our peril”, the statement reads. By signing agreements that limit how content may be shared, “we turn our backs on a great strength of the academy - the ability to build complementary collections and share them in good faith with researchers and the community of readers.”

The Oberlin Group has a history of opposing restrictions on disseminating information. In 2006, the group rallied to support the Federal Public Research Access Act, which would have required federal agencies and departments to provide open access to taxpayer-funded research. It would take another seven years before the Obama administration endorsed such a plan.

The library directors presented 12 principles, adapted from a list of standards proposed by staff in the DeWitt Wallace Library at Minnesota’s Macalester College, which they said should guide licensing agreements.

Several of the principles involve making ebooks easily accessible regardless of location or platform. Like physical books, ebooks should be made available for interlibrary loans “in a manner that is neither cumbersome nor awkward”, and the content should be able to be transferred “efficiently and electronically”.

Libraries, not publishers, should decide for how long a reader can access an ebook, and readers themselves should not have to worry about publishers sharing their personal information without their consent. Finally, the library directors called on publishers to offer individual, unbundled titles, and the opportunity to purchase licenses without usage limits.

“To summarize, we do not live in isolation,” the statement reads. “We all find ourselves impoverished - always indirectly and sometimes directly - when information fails to reach those in need. Our commitment to sharing is fundamental, as is our commitment to promoting and demanding models that make such sharing possible.”

The proposals were met with resistance from the Association of American Publishers, however.

A spokeswoman for the organisation declined to comment, saying the statement “was apparently produced for publicity value rather than dialogue with publishers.”

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