A Burlington County librarian has become a leader in a crusade against a major publishing house that has set a limit on how many times its e-books may be borrowed from public libraries.
HarperCollins advised libraries in March that they would have to repurchase an e-book after it had been checked out 26 times, a move that has drawn widespread criticism and has cash-strapped libraries concerned about the cost of stocking the increasingly popular electronic books.
Some of the publisher's own authors have called on it to end the policy, which the company said was necessary to keep the business viable.
"I felt that the policy was unreasonable, unfair, and contrary to the preservation of a library as an institution," said Andy Woodworth, 34, a staff member at the Bordentown Library and a popular blogger in his field known for using sometimes harsh language. "It's not a good practice that we would want other publishers to follow."
The Maple Shade resident launched an online petition last month to encourage librarians to boycott HarperCollins e-books and pressure the company to reconsider. The petition has attracted thousands of signers.
The debate takes place in uncharted territory and has pitted two sides that typically are more cordial in promoting authors and supporting readers. Prices for e-books vary significantly, with some popular books costing $30. Most of the classics can be found online for free.
Library e-books may be checked out by only one person at a time. A reader can download the book to a personal computer or an electronic reading device, such as an iPad. On its due date, the file disappears from the personal device, and the title becomes available again.
For libraries, the advantage of a hardback book is that "we own them forever and a day," said Manuel Paredes, director of the Cherry Hill Public Library.
Cherry Hill is not participating in the boycott, he said, but he hopes HarperCollins reconsiders its policy, which erases the e-book from a library's electronic inventory after the 26th use unless it is repurchased.
At the Free Library of Philadelphia, purchases of HarperCollins e-books are on hold, said Anne Silvers Lee, chief of materials management. The library is not boycotting the company, which provides 20 percent of its e-books, she said. But it is watching to see how the matter is resolved before submitting new orders.
"They're one of the biggest publishers," Lee said. "We're big book buyers, and we buy them in all kinds of formats."
Publishers have struggled to devise e-book limits that they consider fair to themselves and libraries. To provide e-books with no checkout limit would deprive the publisher of a sales equivalent to the replacement of dog-eared hardbacks. At least two large publishers do not sell e-books to libraries.
Random House sells its e-books without restrictions, said a company spokesman, Stuart Applebaum, who cautioned that things could change.
"Everyone is reviewing the landscape with digital opportunities," Applebaum said. "We believe in libraries and supporting libraries across the country."
Woodworth said his work as a librarian was separate from his petition, titled "Tell HarperCollins: Limited Checkouts on eBooks Is Wrong for Libraries" at www.change.org. The petition has more than 67,600 signatures, including those of several HarperCollins authors.
The petition has been among the top discussions for Change.org, a platform for social issues.
"I would say it's among our largest petitions this year," said Carol Scott, education editor for the website.
It's not the first time Woodworth has used the Web to raise awareness for a library cause. In 2009, he used Facebook to lobby Ben & Jerry's for an ice cream flavor, Gooey Decimal System, to raise awareness of budgetary problems facing the nation's public libraries. Though his effort found thousands of supporters, Gooey Decimal is not yet a flavor.
The Bordentown Library is a branch of the Burlington County library system. The county system's assistant coordinator, Ranjna Das, said that the system was not boycotting HarperCollins, but that the company's policy was "disturbing." Das said he believed Woodworth's efforts could have an impact.
A HarperCollins representative would not say how Woodworth's petition had been received by the company. HarperCollins consulted with librarians before implementing its policy and reached out again after receiving feedback, spokeswoman Erin Crum said. It continues to work with libraries to develop a reasonable business model, she said.
"We are striving to find the best model for all parties. Guiding our decisions is our goal to make sure that all of our sales channels, in both print and digital formats, remain viable, not just today but in the future," the company said in a March news release.
Crum said it was too early to determine the financial effect on libraries, and encouraged librarians to participate first to determine whether the policy should change.
The American Library Association has advocated for a system that would loosen restrictions on e-books and allow libraries to maximize their use. That would include giving libraries the ability to download a title to multiple users at the same time.
"It's a crazy time for libraries," said Carrie Russell, who works in Washington as a policy analyst for the association. Publishers have an unfounded fear that unlimited electronic access to books in libraries could lead to piracy, she said.
"We see the value of publishers, and publishers see the value of libraries," Russell said. "What we would like is to have a mutually beneficial relationship."