11 Mar 2021

The #ebooksos campaign in Ireland


Cathal McCauley is University Librarian at Maynooth University and Vice President of the Library Association of Ireland


During the summer of 2020 Stuart Hamilton (Head of Libraries Development at the Local Government Management Agency (LGMA), the agency responsible for all public libraries in Ireland), Marian Higgins (County Librarian for Kildare and current president of the Library Association of Ireland) and I were discussing what we considered as the perfect storm of financial pressures, a dysfunctional market and skyrocketing customer demand in relation to ebook provision.

Irish libraries, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, had significantly increased spending on ebooks.  On the 26th March, just 13 days into what could now be called lockdown 1, the Irish government announced an additional €200,000 investment in ebooks for public libraries and they injected a similar amount again in June.  Academic libraries have also ramped up spending on ebooks and welcomed the decision by many publishers to make a range of content available temporarily available at no additional cost.  Ebook usage soared by up to 300% and the increased content was broadly welcomed by students, faculty and members of the public.  However, we like many other library leaders and colleagues were worried about the sustainability of the approach and concerned about the fact that this increased dependence and spend on ebooks was really highlighting the longstanding problems with the current models of ebook provision that predated COVID-19.

Ebooksos Campaign

As we struggled with these issues Johanna Anderson’s ebooksos campaign was gathering momentum in the UK and Research Libraries UK issued a content statement in support of libraries.   Anderson’s campaign started when she was unable to obtain ebooks to support a new flagship course at her own institution.  The few titles that were available as ebooks cost multiples of the print equivalent via third party platforms.  To add salt to her wounds, the titles that were made available were sold directly to the school for an annual subscription – limiting access to a small group of students and removing the library from the relationship.  Frustrated by this experience she started the ebooksos campaign.

The UK ebooksos campaign’s primary objective was to call for an investigation into the academic ebook market.  By early March 2021 more than 3,725 people had signed the open letter including the Library Association of Ireland, CILIP, senior university staff, eminent academics, student unions and many librarians.  In parallel to this the campaign crowd sourced data to highlight the issues of concern.  This confirmed that many ebooks are many times more expensive than their print equivalents, many titles are unavailable as ebooks and vendors apply a raft of onerous terms and conditions to ebooks that are available.

The Campaign in Ireland

Building on the work of our UK colleagues I drafted a call for action on what I called the electronic content crisis facing libraries and library users and, working with Marian and Stuart, the call was signed by four key representative groups: the Library of Association of Ireland who represent librarians and libraries in Ireland; the Irish Universities Association Librarian’s Group; the Technological and Higher Education Association Librarians’ Group; and the Consortium of National and University Libraries.  This was an unprecedented cross-sectoral move which underlined the level of concern in libraries about these issues.  This cross-sectoral dimension is an interesting difference from the UK campaign which started out with an exclusively academic library focus.

The full text of the call is available online.  The key issues are around the unsustainability of electronic content and ebook pricing and the objectionable terms and conditions under which they are made available.  It is important to note that public libraries face even worse terms and conditions than academic libraries do with concepts such as ‘exploding licenses’.  In addition to highlighting these problematic issues the call also suggested areas for action including more support for Open Educational Resources, copyright reform and - echoing the campaign in the UK – a call for these issues to be investigated by government. 

We followed up the call, again following the ebooksos example, by gathering examples of the kinds of issues we were concerned about and our data collection confirmed that some ebooks are 20 times more expensive than the print equivalent and many are 3 – 10 times more expensive.  Interestingly, the data gathered suggests that the largest multipliers are applied by the large international publishers rather than the small local Irish publishers.

Gaining Momentum

The campaign has attracted a great deal of attention.  Webinars focusing on it have attracted over 500 delegates, librarians involved in the campaign have been asked to speak at many events, the BBC, Guardian, IFLA and many more organisations have written about it.  In the UK an increasing number of senior staff in relevant organisations and government departments are now interested in the campaign and the issues it is highlighting.  

Next steps

Due to the cross-sectoral nature of the Irish campaign we need to liaise with a range of government departments.  We have written to the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and the LGMA’s Library’s Committee has referred the request for an investigation to the Department of Rural and Community Development who will in turn refer it to the relevant department for such matters – possibly the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation.

During March and April we are ramping up our social media campaign and we will be using the graphics and the #ebooksos hashtag from the UK ebooksos campaign which will make the two campaigns more seamless which is welcome.  We will also continue to work with the UK campaign and colleagues in the EU on highlighting our concerns and developing our responses.  To conclude, I want to pay tribute to Johanna Anderson for her passion, energy vision and leadership of the campaign – she is a credit to Librarianship!