The Free Library of Philadelphia no longer offers paid-access cards


It may be the first example of fallout from Macmillan’s ebook embargo and other traditional publishers tightening of licensing for ebooks and audiobooks. Today, The Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP) sent an email to out-of-area fee card patrons letting them know that they will no longer be offing paid-access cards, effective November 1, 2019.

Here is the email I received:

Dear Customer:

In order to focus its efforts and resources on customers in its direct service area, the Free Library will no longer offer paid-access cards.

Your paid-access card will remain valid and usable for the duration of the term for which you paid. At the end of that term, you will no longer be able to access the Free Library’s resources, and you will be unable to renew your card for a further term.

Thank you for your understanding!

Several thing things stand out about this email. Note the words “In order to focus its efforts and resources on customers in its direct service area”. Also note the date, November 1st, which is the day Macmillan’s new ebook terms take effect for libraries. Interestingly, the change was NOT mentioned in the library’s community newsletter for November.

I have to admit, I expected that we would start seeing this happen. Macmillan’s embargo, along with publishers ending perpetual licencing for ebooks and audiobooks is artificially creating a scarcity for these materials. In order for libraries to ensure that residents in their local communities have access to materials, libraries are going to have to make hard decisions about the number of patrons their budgets allow them to serve. It makes sense that libraries will act to ensure access to the taxpayers who are directly funding services. (I just did not expect this to happen quite this soon!)

This is going to make it difficult for users such as myself who rely on paid access cards to supplement local libraries that have poor ebook selections and long waiting lists. A few numbers for comparison: My city library offers a total of 1,891 ebook and audiobook titles in its Overdrive collection. The Free Library of Philadelphia, on the other hand, offers 24,000 digital titles in its Overdrive collection. In 2018, The FLP loaned 449,547 eBooks (adult and children’s) and 69,208
digital audiobooks. (Note that the FLP annual report does not break out fee card access numbers separately.)

This change by the FLP will probably impact a large number of ebook library patrons. Back in 2007-2008 when the first generation Kindles became popular, the Free Library was one of the first libraries to offer ebooks to non-residents. KIndle users spread the word and the library became a very popular option for avid readers, especially among seniors and those who need the font scaling options that ebooks provide.

If you haven’t already, please visit the ALA’s #ebooksforall site to learn more about what publishers are doing to prevent libraries from offering ebook access for everyone and sign the ALA’s petition while you are there. There will be a lot more stories like this in the future unless we act to make sure that ebooks are freely available in libraries.