License to Loan

Library directors at 66 liberal arts colleges call on publishers to ease ebook licensing restrictions.

March 31, 2014

Library directors at 66 liberal arts colleges on Friday 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 organization declined to comment, saying the statement “was apparently produced for publicity value rather than dialogue with publishers.”

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Carl Straumsheim

Carl Straumsheim, Technology Correspondent, joined Inside Higher Ed in 2013. He got his start in journalism as a video game blogger for Norway's third largest paper, Dagbladet, at age 15, and has since dabbled in media criticism, investigative reporting and political coverage. Straumsheim (pronounced STROMS-hyme) boasts that he once received a perfect score on the Test of English as a Foreign Language, which enabled him to pursue a bachelor's degree in English from LaGrange College and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland at College Park.

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