Starting this week, libraries around the country can send a newly purchased e-book on only 26 virtual circulations before having to purchase a new license for the book. There was no limit on the number of times the e-book could be used before this.
"We have to grow and adapt in order to remain relevant and be able to provide to people what they're looking for," said Ruth Lednicer, director of marketing at the Chicago Public Library. And that means lending e-books.
But Lednicer is concerned that constantly repurchasing books will impact the budget and keep libraries from serving their patrons. Her fears echo through the quiet of libraries around Chicago.
"We are really nervous," said Barb Kruser, director of audiovisual services at the Niles Public Library. "I just don't know the impact. Twenty-six circulations happen really quickly."
Patrons can read e-books on anything from a dedicated e-reader or iPad to a smartphone or laptop - and the number of people doing so has increased astronomically over the past few years.
HarperCollins wrote in a post on the company blog, Library Love Fest, that the 26 checkouts should allow for a year of availability for popular books that are continuously off the e-shelves, given a two-week circulation cycle. The rule doesn't apply to HarperCollins e-books purchased before Monday.
The publisher stated that the previous e-book policy, almost 10 years old, would harm bookstore sales and decrease the royalties paid to authors.
"We are looking to balance the mission and needs of the libraries and their patrons with those of authors and booksellers, so that the library channel can thrive alongside the growing e-book retail channel," wrote Josh Marwell, president of sales at HarperCollins.
Many librarians disagree with the premise.
"Libraries and bookstores - we're not competitors," Lednicer said. "It's not like we buy one or two copies and we can be ignored. We are huge purchasers of books and e-books."
The e-book and e-reader markets are growing rapidly. The Yankee Group estimates 310 million e-book sales worth $2.7 billion by 2013. In 2010, e-book sales totaled approximately $170 million, according to an article by eBookNewser.
Libraries are increasing their e-book collections in light of the growing demand. The Chicago Public Library increased its e-book holdings from 1,706 books in 2009 to 3,158 in 2010. The number of people checking out e-books doubled during that same time.
Three years ago, only 38 percent of libraries nationwide provided free access to e-books. Now, 66 percent of libraries do so, though the figure is only 46 percent for libraries in Illinois, according to the American Library Association.
"Our job is to provide information to people," Lednicer said. "If the way in which people are getting their information changes, it's our duty to keep up with it."
Murmurs of potential HarperCollins boycotts have filled the library world since the announcement of the e-reading limits in February, but Chicago area libraries don't plan to participate at present.
"We can't just not buy from Harper Collins at all," said Donna Block, a reference librarian at the Niles Public Library. "If people want the books, we can't just not buy them."
Librarians also criticized OverDrive Media Console, which provides access to e-books to some 10,000 libraries, for not standing up to HarperCollins.
In addition to longer wait times for patrons, librarians such as Debbie Baaske (who manages shared e-book purchases for a northwest suburban library consortium) worry about managing e-books under the new rules.
"My concern is that it might be a new model of doing business and the other providers will follow suit," she said.
Baaske said that if the HarperCollins restrictions had been in place since 2008, it would have cost her group of 60 libraries in the northwest suburbs (partnered together through My Media Mall) an extra $2,028.
"That's not that significant over three years," she said. "But that doesn't make the policy right."
For librarians, the heart of the matter isn't money but the desire to make books - in whatever format - available to those who want to read. Lednicer learned from personal experience that the ability to carry a slim e-reader around makes it easier to read more.
While only 5 percent of Americans own dedicated e-readers, e-books have still shown a marked increase in sales at bookstores and checkouts at libraries.
"The way in which people absorb information is changing, and I think it's exciting, and yet mind-boggling challenging," Lednicer said.
This season's One Book, One Chicago, which promotes a city-sponsored book with events and discussions throughout the city, launched on Wednesday. The spring choice, "Neverwhere," by Neil Gaiman, is available for checkout at Chicago Public Libraries - and as an e-book.