Comment on this article

The Rental Economy

by Howard Trace

The American Library Association's Center for the Future of Libraries has an article on the sharing economy ( that looks at the impact of the sharing economy with regard to services like Airbnb, Lyft and Uber.  However, there is another side to what I will call the rental economy that is having an even more profound effect on libraries.

At the time of this writing, libraries are still entrenched in a boycott of Macmillan Publishing over their policy of only allowing libraries to purchase one copy of an ebook for eight weeks following its release. This is only one example of how ebooks are impacting the availability of materials. Access to ebooks rarely allows a library to actually own the material they are providing. Contracts provide for things like: unlimited access for a limited period of time; access to a limited number of "copies" that can each be checked out for a limited time period; limited number of check outs before access is cut off. In all these scenarios libraries are limited in how much a particular item can be used before the library has to pay for it again. With physical objects, the library could use the item until it was lost, worn out, or deaccessioned from the collection. Those days are likely over, and libraries need to accept the new reality and determine the best course of action for their institution to adapt to the available options.

Many libraries are choosing to boycott Macmillan products, electronic or physical, to pressure a policy change. It will be interesting to see how effective the boycott is, and the result could have a significant impact on the publishing industry if successful. However, if the boycott is unsuccessful, libraries could see even harsher policies regarding access to electronic material. 

Another example of the transiency of information is also playing out with the Verizon decision to delete all data from Yahoo Groups. Although Verizon blocked attempts to save the information by community archiving groups, they will continue to process all requests submitted to retrieve individual data for six weeks past the initial deadline. This reprieve will allow some data in the vast community archive to be saved, but it shows the fragility of data kept in the cloud by a company that has no interest in the material in its care beyond how the data can be monetized. 

These are not new issues, but the centralization and consolidation of knowledge makes it harder for libraries and other cultural heritage institutions to protect our shared experiences. Even the ability to repair items is under threat. Because so many items are now controlled by software, if repairing something requires a software change, it is often considered illegal to modify the software in the act of attempting to restore or improve functionality to something you own like your phone, tablet, computer, car, or even a bookmobile.  Even the U.S. Military is not immune to right to repair issues. 


So what can libraries do to survive in this new rental economy? The first step is to understand what limitations contracts place on access to material. Limitations could be time-based, checkout-based, or otherwise restricting how much a particular resource can be utilized. You should talk to your vendors about what options available make the most sense for your needs. Other libraries may have already negotiated different types of access or the vendor may be willing to try out something new on a trial basis. Crunch the numbers on what you spend and show the vendor how a different relationship could benefit both the library and their bottom line.

Look for support wherever you can find it. Check with any consortia you belong to in case there are any discounts or alternative access options already negotiated or if this is something the consortia should look into. If you're not already part of a consortia talk to other libraries in your area to see if group purchasing could be an option. Even if you cannot form a group, the more organizations looking for alternatives the more likely a vendor will offer it.

These model license examples should provide a starting point to compare against your existing models.

Library of Congress

California Digital Library


The most important thing to remember is that issues that we're seeing today are not going to last forever. The publishing business is changing rapidly and libraries have to change with them. One of the biggest issues is going to be balancing immediate needs with the long tail. While it might hurt to only be able to buy one copy of bestseller in its first weeks in print or have limited access to the newest research in a particular field, in just a couple years the research will be outdated and the bestseller will likely be mostly forgotten and access needs to those resources will be different. Finding a balance between immediate needs and long term access could be the key to getting users what they need when they need it and providing publishers with a reliable income stream.

Copyright 2019 by Howard Trace.

About the author:

Howard Trace currently serves as director of the American Legion National Headquarters Library & Museum Division, a position he has held since 2008. His library experience spans three decades in public, academic, and special libraries. He holds a bachelor’s in history and religious studies from Purdue University, master of science degree in space studies from the University of North Dakota, and a master in library science from Indiana University.