I hope by now that readers of this blog have already seen the excellent “Things That Make the Librarian Angry” piece by Jessamyn West over at Medium; if you haven’t already, please go ahead and read it and come back. She articulates the “frustrating truth” about e-books in libraries in a way that will have librarians nodding along, and library users understanding a bit better.
Reading West’s article finally caused something I’ve thought about a lot in the past years to crystallize, and I made this Euler diagram (I was thinking of the Project Management Triangle) to illustrate it:
Citizens – or consumers, as we’re now usually called – often have to choose between privacy, cost, and convenience. Many web services are “free,” meaning that the company providing the service is collecting your data: you’re sacrificing your privacy for convenience and no/low financial cost. In other cases, you may pay for privacy and/or convenience.
At least you get one or two of the three, though; for libraries, as West puts it, “There is no good ebook lending solution, yet.” Libraries pay more than consumers do for e-books and digital audiobooks, but that extra cost doesn’t allow us to give access to more people at a time; most lending models are still “one copy, one user” (1C1U), meaning that publishers require DRM that restricts what is otherwise technically possible.
The DRM is usually provided by Adobe, which, as West wrote, “has not been real trust-inspiring lately” in the way that they handle patrons’ personal, private data. (If you are thinking, “I don’t care who knows what I read or when,” please see “Nothing to Hide: Readers’ rights to privacy and confidentiality.”) Library privacy policies often aim for minimal data collection and retention, but our vendors might not share our ideals. (Libraries ought to use their contracts with vendors to ensure the privacy of patron data, but this hasn’t always been possible.)
Lastly, convenience: anyone who has borrowed an e-book or digital audiobook from the library in the past several years knows that it is not as easy as buying one. It is nowhere near “frictionless” (though it has definitely improved by leaps and bounds. I only hope that library users who tried to download an e-book from the library once four years ago weren’t scared off the whole thing forever, but I’m afraid there are plenty who were). I won’t speak for all librarians, but for me, it’s hard to stand at the reference desk and smile as I say “in just seventeen easy steps…”
West makes an excellent point: this “byzantine hokey-pokey dance” to access “free” material spreads a “deceptive and unnecessary ‘tech is hard’ message.” For some people, this means mere frustration, but for others – those who are under-confident in their tech abilities to begin with, who preface a conversation with “I’m computer-illiterate” or “I don’t know how to work this thing” – it’s a little bit heartbreaking.
Which brings us back to West’s opening paragraph, which I’m quoting here to close:
“I was drawn to librarianship because I like to help people, I’m organized, and I believe in intellectual freedom — people’s right to learn and teach and know whatever they want. I like technology because it can solve problems, lots of them. Sometimes the overlap between my two favorite things creates pockets of cognitive dissonance where the technology that solves a problem for the market creates one for the library and its users.”
The sooner we solve this, the better.