For immediate release | December 6, 2023

New ALA Report Maps Increasingly Complex Digital Public Library Ecosystem

WASHINGTON, D.C. — With a 34 percent increase in digital book borrowing since 2019, the size and scope of the digital content ecosystem for public libraries and patrons have made transparency more important than ever, according to a new report released today by the American Library Association (ALA). Explaining the nuts-and-bolts of digital lending as well as the bigger picture, the Digital Public Library Ecosystem 2023 report will assist library and publishing professionals as they work to connect growing audiences to their preferred materials, in their preferred formats. Competition and innovation have improved patrons’ access to digital books through a diverse array of distributors, apps and library-enabled subscriptions.

Report authors Rachel Noorda, Ph.D, and Kathi Inman Berens, Ph.D., both professors of book publishing of Portland State University, show how the rise in digital content consumption rates has brought a large group of library patrons and staff into digital content landscape. The report demystifies licensing terms for digital books and explains why flexible licensing terms reduce patron wait times.

"This report is clarifying and simplifying for public library digital content stakeholders," said Dr. Noorda. "The report's long-term goal of is to facilitate collaboration between libraries, authors, publishers, distributors, and consumers. The first step toward that is defining key concepts and structures within the system."

According to the report, three key factors have contributed to confusion about the structure of and access to the digital public library ecosystem:

  • Essential terms like “reading,” “library use,” and “circulation” should be consistently and transparently defined.
  • The impact of current digital licensing terms on authors: midlist, bestselling, and self-published.
  • The role of Big Five publishers in setting licensing terms for public libraries.
  • How Amazon’s dominance in the audiobooks market influences audiobook library access, impacting audiobook authors, publishers, and narrators.
  • Gen Z and millennials borrow extensively from digital collections but are less aware that digital library lending apps are connected to their local library.

Noorda and Inman Berens point out that no individual entity created or caused the complexity within the current ecosystem, which is the result of multiple cycles of investment and innovation by both libraries and publishers. The report offers informed solutions and pathways to collaboration between all stakeholders.

"It will take the entire digital public library ecosystem – libraries, publishers and consumers alike – to solve the challenges and complexities we’re facing," said ALA President Emily Drabinski. "This report is an important, solution-oriented step toward bringing together all stakeholders with a shared understanding of the current digital content landscape, its limitations, and its boundless opportunities."

With digital content consumption rates rising, the report also emphasizes the importance of flexible licensing terms for libraries and library consortia. Libraries have struggled to meet demand for digital content, with library budget constraints a key factor. Flexible terms allow libraries to maximize their digital collections budgets while also reducing wait time for patrons.

"As libraries face rising demand for digital content of all types, flexible licensing and contract terms would allow patrons to consume the media they want, when they want it, while enabling libraries to more evenly balance their budgets," said Dr. Inman Berens.

The report builds on earlier cohort-specific analysis the authors conducted in ALA’s previous report, Gen Z and Millennials: How They Use Public Libraries and Identify Through Media Use.


Ian Ware

Communications Manager

American Library Association

Public Policy & Advocacy