A Library Written in Disappearing Ink

Posted on November 21st, 2011 by

I’ve been mulling over the bizarre new move by a major publisher to get more blood out of a turnip – or rather, to try and get more money out public libraries at a time when their budgets are being slashed.

The librarians’ corner of the Twitterverse has been on fire ever since Library Journal investigated a vague pronouncement from Overdrive, a vendor of e-books and digital audio books to libraries, that some unnamed publisher wanted to limit the number of times an e-book could be checked out. The publisher in question, it turns out, is HarperCollins, which has decided that after a book has been checked out 26 times the library will have to purchase it again or it will vanish.

To many, this seems outrageous, a kind of technological book burning. A boycott has been launched, a bill of rights for e-book readers proposed.And BoingBoing, Slashdot, Metafilter, and even the New York Times took note.

Now, before I go any further, I should add a few additional facts for background. First, at least two of the Big Six publishers (Macmillan and Simon & Schuster) won’t let libraries purchase or license e-books at all. The CEO of Macmillan said he would only consider letting libraries loan e-books if he could find the right business model. (Apparently the annoying feature of copyright law that lets people do what they like with a book after they’ve purchased it is a bug that he would like to see fixed.) Second, libraries pay more for e-books than for a print copy. Up front, the library has to pay the vendor quite a lot for the system that controls one-user-at-a-time software that returns the book automatically after two weeks, it pays full price rather than the discounted price that it pays for a print book, and librarians spend a lot of time trouble-shooting downloads and explaining to people that library e-books won’t work on a Kindle. (Amazon, like Macmillan and Simon & Schuster, prefers a digital future that is entirely pay per view.) Finally, libraries have no way of doing with e-books things that they traditionally have done – preserve culture (because they don’t own anything they can legally retain) or defend against censorship (because the publisher retains control of the content and can change or delete it at any time – and could do so in every library at once).

For these reasons, I’ve had my reservation about libraries investing their scarce dollars into renting material with so many restrictions that benefits only those who have the equipment to read the digital files. But I’m old-fashioned that way. I suppose it makes sense if you are used to keeping books on the shelf only for as long as they are in high demand and if the public you serve is clamoring for digital books. I suppose it is hardly surprising that a publisher would suddenly realize that digital files don’t wear out as books do (though generally after far more than 26 check-outs) and might think it might be reasonable to pull it out of circulation by technological means after approximately a year of use.

But what really dismays me is this: publishers believe that libraries are not good for business, that sharing is a bug, that book culture would survive if everyone had to pay for everything they read.This is short-sighted madness.

I’m guessing that most people who work in trade publishing are pretty far removed from the experience of the majority of readers who at some point in their lives has depended on libraries. The average starting salary for people working in editorial jobs is almost, but not quite, enough to cover the average rent on a New York apartment. This makes me suspect that you can’t break into the business unless you have some form of financial support beyond the salary. I’m not disparaging the skill or commitment of editors; those I’ve talked to are book lovers who do their best to keep loving books in a hostile bottom-line-driven climate. I’m just not sure that they have ever depended on libraries, garage sales, or hand-me-downs for their reading matter. From a publisher’s perspective, sales to libraries are just a hypothetical line on a profit and loss statement. They are a market, and one that acts suspiciously like a well-mannered pirate.

But here’s the deal: Without access to books, lots of books, readers can’t develop and grow their own canon of taste for books. Without libraries, books would become luxury goods for a small and dwindling minority of readers. Without libraries, writers would have a much harder time reaching readers and developing a following.

Libraries are in communities of every size and are located in neighborhoods where there are no bookstores, because librarians know that readers are tenacious and can grow in thin soil. Not only will libraries buy books for every reader, those readers become book buyers.Publishers seem to be ignorant of these facts.

I realize that for many academics, libraries are not important anymore – except as the office that pays for the content they need. I am worried that the badly broken system we have developed that has disconnected scholars from the enduring value of libraries is about to reproduce itself in the public sphere. If our public library system is going to be shut out of an digital future because publishers are too dim to recognize their enormous value in fostering and sustaining book culture – then what?

Karen Schneider has a good essay on this topic, saying “I’m most perturbed by the long-range implications of an economic model – already based on ‘license’ versus ‘ownership’ – that, if adopted by other publishers, would destroy the role literature plays as our culture’s ‘memory work’ – the growing opus collected and managed by libraries that help shape who we are as humans.”

We have reason to be worried, because academic libraries are already well advanced down that path.

Originally published on February 28, 2011, in Inside Higher Ed.

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