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Can Libraries Survive the E-Book Revolution?

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The e-book revolution has overturned the whole infrastructure upon which libraries depended. From 2011 to 2012, the percentage of Americans who owned an e-book reader leapt from 18 to 33 percent, a rapid climb from 6 percent in 2010. Attempting to accommodate this shift, more than three-quarters of U.S. libraries allow their customers to check out digital books, but they’ve encountered fierce resistance in access and pricing from the major publishers. Some won’t even sell e-books to libraries. If libraries are able to obtain mainstream e-books at all, those sales almost always come with onerous conditions and high prices, especially compared to the traditional discounted rates libraries pay for hardcover copies.

The situation has left libraries looking desperately for a way to make e-borrowing sustainable for customers in the future. But they have little negotiating power other than an altruistic appeal to the established relationship between library and publisher, both working toward the goal of a more literate nation. The bottom line is that libraries need to have e-books for their readers to check out, because that’s how people are going to read in the future. If they don’t have the goods, then what will a library be useful for a decade from now?

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