Digital inequality

By Jenn Watt

We usually look at digital information technology as something that makes our lives easier. Certainly it can provide access to information and resources previously inaccessible to whole portions of society.
But sometimes access comes at a disproportionately high cost.

Haliburton County’s head librarian Bessie Sullivan spoke to the county finance and correspondence committee last week about the financial pressures our library system is under due to changes in the cost of and funding for digital information.

While the price of digital materials can be incredibly high government funding for database access is dropping off.

Sullivan explained to council that e-books cost libraries much more than they cost the average consumer. And many publishers put limits on how many times a title can be taken out before the library must buy it again – sometimes the library has as few as 26 reads available before that book must be re-purchased.

Here’s an example: For the average person to purchase Linwood Barclay’s Broken Promise the e-book price is about $15.99. For the library: $69 according to

Haliburton is part of a consortium of Ontario libraries that purchase together keeping prices down and allowing local library users access to tens of thousands of titles online for the price of a few thousand dollars a year. That keeps the cost of e-books manageable but it also means HCPL is hesitant to invest in additional titles to supplement what the consortium provides. This can lead to lengthy wait times for new and popular books.

At the same time a three-year grant from the Ontario Ministry of Culture that paid for various databases such as Ancestry and Tumble Talking Books is drying up as of December.

Sullivan estimates it would cost the library at least $15000 to replace those databases.

Last year HCPL spent just more than $100000 on all new materials two per cent of which was for e-books. As of September HCPL users took out more than 11800 e-books in 2015 and rates will likely rise as patrons become more comfortable with new technology.

Which makes the current situation all the more worrisome.

Rural libraries already come with small budgets and limited resources; high prices and dwindling funding for digital information only put small towns farther behind.

Municipalities are coming together around this issue. Ours has just endorsed a statement asking the Minister of Culture to reduce the financial burden of e-books on libraries.

It’s critical that the province takes up the challenge.

Libraries remain despite the digital revolution places focused on equality education and community. For relatively little money they provide a portal to lifelong learning regardless of income.

As our world shifts more heavily toward electronics our libraries must too. Pricing them out of that market and limiting their funding only serves to undermine those fundamental principles that make a community strong.