E-books in libraries

Cross-posted, in modified form, from the Robbins Library blog.

It’s a real struggle sometimes to refrain from prefacing the name Cory Doctorow with the phrase “my hero.” In addition to being an author (Little Brother and Homeland, among others), blogger, journalist, and the co-editor of Boing Boing, he is also a tremendous advocate for libraries. In particular, he often writes about the relationship between libraries and publishers.

Most public libraries have jumped on the e-book bandwagon, and have found some platform from which to lend e-books for patrons to borrow. However, these platforms are usually somewhat clunky (though they are improving), and publisher restrictions hamper what books libraries are able to buy and how we are able to lend them. Thus, for the most part, e-books work much the same way print books do: one person can use them at a time, and if more than one person wants to read a particular book, there is a waitlist.

The “one copy/one user” model, as it is called, is an artificial constraint put in place by the publishers, who require each e-book to come wrapped in digital rights management (DRM) software. DRM limits what readers can do with their e-books: an e-book with DRM will only work on certain devices, usually can’t be moved from one device to another, can’t be lent or shared, and can’t be copied.

Of course, publishers are correct to be concerned. E-books are new territory, and it’s much easier to copy a digital file than it is to copy a print book. However, as Doctorow points out, libraries are, and always have been, publishers’ greatest allies. Especially with the decline of brick-and-mortar bookstores, it is often librarians, not booksellers, who connect readers with new authors.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from one of Doctorow’s latest essays on the topic, but I encourage you to read the whole piece:

“There are libraries in every town, and even though they’re under terrible assault in the age of austerity, they remain the mark of a civilized society and benefit from librarians’ amazing organizational skills. The modern library has become something like a bookstore, where helpful staff who love books and authors take enormous pride in ‘‘hand-selling’’ the publishers’ products to their patrons. Libraries host some of the best author events, too, providing a vital space for readers and writers to connect.

Unlike every other channel for e-books, libraries are not the publishers’ competitors. They don’t want to sell devices. They don’t want to win over customers to a particular cloud. They just want readers to read, writers to write, and publishers to sell. They deserve a better deal than they’re getting.”

Librarians continue to push the conversation along, but meanwhile, we’re still buying (well, licensing) e-books for our patrons at unfair prices, under unfair restrictions. But it’s not all doom and gloom: some publishers, like sci-fi imprint Tor, are experimenting with DRM-free books, and so far that has not led to an explosion of e-book piracy, so perhaps more publishers will move in that direction.


3 thoughts on “E-books in libraries

  1. I know it’s painful now but there are some really interesting things being done on the ebook front, The Douglas County model is a great one for libraries actually owning (rather than licensing) ebooks but I know its not feasible for every library. My company (full disclosure: Xist Publishing has a catalog of 180 children’s ebooks available to libraries through any platform we can find) is always looking for ways to make the library/digital publisher relationship better so I really appreciate your blog.

    • Hi Calee,
      Thanks for the full disclosure, and for mentioning the DCL model – I think Massachusetts is working on a similar plan, but I don’t know how long it will take. I do think it would be better if libraries could negotiate directly with publishers, without a vendor as intermediary, but of course that requires being able to build our own platform. I do hope that eventually we’re able to come to a fair and mutually agreeable solution, with or without vendors, sooner rather than later.

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