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Limits on library e-books stir controversy

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Emily Spatz/Argus Leader/AP

(Read caption) Some librarians are "appalled" by a new HarperCollins policy that would allow library e-books to circulate only 26 times before their license expires. Others, however, note that some major publishers don't allow their e-books to circulate in libraries at all.

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Library books get plenty of wear and tear. But do popular books really wear out after just a year?

That’s the stated logic behind a new rule for e-books published by Harper Collins. As Library Journal reported, the publisher plans to allow each “copy” of a library e-book to circulate only 26 times before the license expires. (For popular titles, LJ noted, that would equal a year of use for libraries with a 2-week checkout, or 1.5 years for libraries with a 3-week window). The president of sales for Harper Collins told Library Journal the limit “was arrived at after considering a number of factors, including the average lifespan of a print book, and wear and tear on circulating copies.”

A protest movement sprung up fast. There’s a website, at least one small Facebook group, and a Twitter hashtag, #hcod, to follow the story and comment on it. Mega-popular Harper Collins author Neil Gaiman, asked in a tweet about the policy, called it “incredibly disappointing,” noted Mediabistro. Another Twitter commenter compared it to book burning.

The comments on the LJ article swung heavily against the new rule (not surprising, considering the audience), though a few said some cap wasn’t unreasonable. The gist was that a cap of 26 seemed arbitrarily low, that the books should be discounted if their use was so severely limited, and that librarians, not corporations, should decide when to weed the collection. One librarian, commenting on a Boing Boing report, brought it all back to books: “I knew when I read Jasper Fforde's 'The Well of Lost Plots' – the plot focuses on some in the Book World pushing for upgrades to UltraWord, a system that allows a book to be read only 3 times – that it was only a matter of time before life imitated art... As a librarian, I'm appalled that a publisher would try this. Not surprised, just appalled.” One librarian summed it up in a blog post as “The Publisher of Tolkien Has Taken A Business Lesson From Sauron”.

Despite the backlash, Harper Collins is, at least, making e-books available to libraries. As Library Journal noted, “two other members of the publishing "big six" – Macmillan and Simon & Schuster – “still don’t allow e-books to be circulated in libraries at all."

Interested in reading more? This post from Librarian By Day includes a lineup of responses.

Rebekah Denn blogs at eatallaboutit.com.

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