New Challenges for Libraries

[first posted by Alice on 1/27/2011]

In his recent Library Journal article “Bottoming Out?” Michael Kelley examines budget issues faced by libraries in the United States. Most important is the fact that governments are looking for ways to slash spending, and libraries are soft targets. Kelley notes that 72% of libraries that responded to a 2010 Library Journal survey said their budget had been cut and 43% of them experienced staff cuts. (Budget problems plague libraries in Britain, too, and passionate library supporters are fighting government cut-backs that could result in the loss of 400 libraries. See the Guardian for more on this.)

Every state expects greater budget shortfalls this year, and newly elected congresspeople who represent Tea Party interests are particularly likely to want to cut federal funding. American Library Association’s Washington office director, Emily Sheketoff, was quoted in a short report on the ALA in Publisher’s Weekly on the short-sightedness of this approach: “Eliminating the debt is all well and good, but you can’t eliminate it by eliminating the democratic institutions that have made our country great, and number one is the library.”  This article also described ways that the trend toward digital publishing could take its toll on public libraries.

Understanding how the proliferation of e-books could cause problems for our libraries requires an understanding of why libraries are able to loan books to patrons without violating the author’s copyright. In “First Sale Rights” (December 2010 issue of Computers in Libraries) Samuel Liston does a good job of explaining the first sale doctrine. In the United States at least, the first sale doctrine makes it possible for libraries to buy books and then do with them whatever they please, including loan them out. Though in other countries there are other legal justifications for lending libraries, in the U.S. it’s the first sale doctrine, a concept which was codified in the Copyright Act of 1976.

Liston gives a careful history of recent challenges to first sale rights, particularly the case of Vernor v. Autodesk, Inc. in which the Ninth Circuit court ruled that Timothy Vernor, who bought a used copy of Autodesk’s AutoCAD software, complete with license at a garage sale, didn’t have the right to sell it on eBay. The American Library Association filed a brief in support of Mr. Vernor, fearing that the software industry’s approach to licensing could be taken up by other copyright holders, such as book publishers, but the Ninth Circuit ruled that Mr. Vernor’s right to sell the software wasn’t guaranteed. Liston says that, although we are a long way away from the dominance of e-books, the precedent set by the Ninth Court ruling could mean that libraries could lose the legal right to lend e-books unless they negotiate better terms from wholesalers or with publishers. These considerations could also affect print-on-demand books, which are also expected to play a larger role in the future.

The onward rush of technological change seems inevitable, and budgets are being rigorously cut. As citizens, we should be watchful so that these trends don’t further undermine a valuable and much-beloved institution, our public library system.

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