Dan Cohen:

Libraries have dramatically increased their spending on e-books but still cannot come close to meeting demand, which unsurprisingly rose during the pandemic. Because publishers view each circulation of a library e-book as a potential missed sale, they have little incentive to reduce costs for libraries or make it easier for libraries to lend digital copies.

All digital transitions have had losers, some of whom we may care about more than others. Musicians seem to have a raw deal in the streaming age, receiving fractions of pennies for streams when they used to get dollars for the sales of physical media. Countless regional newspapers went out of business in the move to the web and the disappearance of lucrative classified advertising. The question before society, with even a partial transition to digital books, is: Do we want libraries to be the losers? 

The answer certainly appears to be Yes. But, as Dan writes later in the essay, 

libraries are where the love of reading is inculcated, and hurting libraries diminishes the growth of new readers, which in turn may reverse the recent upward trend in book sales. This will be particularly true for communities with fewer resources to devote to equitable access. Ultimately, we should all seek to maximize the availability of books, through as many reasonable methods as we can find. The library patron who is today checking out an e-book, or a digitized book through Controlled Digital Lending — should the practice be upheld on appeal — will be the enthusiastic customer at the bookstore tomorrow. 

Dan does’t emphasize this point in his essay, but one of the fruits of the last few decades’ Merger Madness in publishing is that the industry — a telling word, that — is now controlled by international mega-conglomerates who have the financial muscle to bring massive legal pressure to bear against libraries, whom they obviously consider their enemies. And then when our political representatives try to take action to protect libraries and readers, that same financial muscle is used to throw angry lobbyists at those representatives. Nice elected office you have there, shame if something happened to it.

Whatever forces are arrayed against libraries are also arrayed against readers. But publishing conglomerates don’t care about readers; they only care about customers. If they had their way reading would be 100% digital, because they continue to own and have complete control over digital books, which cannot therefore be sold or given to others. They are the enemies of circulation in all its forms, and circulation is the lifeblood of reading.