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Preserving Our Freedom to Read

(This is a reprint of an op-ed, published in The State newspaper from Nov. 22, 2012)

As many of us head out to grab Black Friday deals on the latest eReaders or simply spend the weekend curled up with one of our favorite books, I would ask you to consider the following.

Several major publishers have refused to sell or license e-books to public libraries. Others are making them available to us at prices that far surpass what individual consumers pay, and some are imposing heavy restrictions on their use. These obstacles severely limit library e-book selections including half of The New York Times best seller list and keep books out of the hands of the nearly 100,000 adults and children who rely on the Richland County Public Library for reading material.

A free society depends on access to information, new ideas, different opinions and the ability to learn through books. With e-books projected to comprise more than 50 percent of the U.S. trade book market over the next five years, publishers’ refusal to work with libraries could mean that a simple inconvenience today becomes an encroachment on our freedom to read tomorrow.

In the not-too-distant future, new books may be published only in a digital format. When that happens, those with an e-book reader, a credit card and disposable income will have the most freedom to read creating a deeper-than-ever digital divide and, even worse, a significant knowledge divide.

And that would be far more than an inconvenience. It could have devastating repercussions for Columbia’s job growth, cultural activities, small business revival and more.

Libraries across the country are trying to get publishers to reinvent their business models and their relationships with libraries so that they continue to meet their bottom lines while maintaining broad access to information that is fundamental to the health of our democracy.

Public libraries always have been champions of books and defenders of our ability to read freely. But they cannot resolve the e-book issue alone. We need citizens and leaders to lend their voices of concern about the importance of the freedom to read and learn through our public library.

What can you do? Make your local and state elected officials and members of Congress aware of publishers’ refusal to sell e-books to libraries. Ask them to tell publishers that everyone deserves the freedom to read in the 21st century way.