The Public Library Ebook FAIL and the purposeful aging of libraries.

But the current system, though unfriendly to users, probably serves the interests of local libraries, which can point to e-book lending as one way they’re staying current and relevant. And it’s hard to see that publishers would have a big interest in streamlining e-book lending — they want people to buy e-books or even printed copies instead.

So says Yahoo’s tech guy, Peter Svensson. Truth be told is, he’s right. It’s a steep price to pay for free, and I don’t think that when the next big ebook reader push for Christmas comes around, that libraries will be able to recover our earlier losses. We will continue to work with our vendors to get this thing to work, but we missed a big chance to prove how “with it” we are.

That’s fine. Actually.

The lending of software and econtent has always been a sticking point for libraries. It is clear that content creators (publishers) and content delivery systems designers (booksellers and publishers) have little interest in making it easier to lend their content for free. That is not to blame them, it simply is not in their interests to do so.  Libraries can devise their own systems to deliver their own content, or we can do what we do best: engage in the hated practice of physically lending out things to people, because physical possession is one of the strongest measures we have to enforce the public good.

Under the standard terms of the agreement, it would seem to this non-lawyer that a library could no more lend an iPad with a Kindle book on it than it could lend Netflix movies to patrons.  Maybe one could argue that all the library is doing is lending computer programs, which is permitted under Section 102(2), provided that the proper warning notices are included on the device itself.  But while this might apply to the iPad software, I am not sure that I would want to argue that an iBook or Kindle book is also a computer program: “a set of statements or instructions to be used directly or indirectly in a computer in order to bring about a certain result.”  Furthermore, licenses usually take precedence over any rights available in the law. -Peter Hirtle, LibraryLaw Blog

Do you remember those bizarre warnings about copyright law that were slapped onto photocopiers? Same issue here. Content providers consistently use threatening legalese to erode the power of sharing. Ebook readers magnify the effects, and it costs the libraries not only money, but also the integrity of the term “public good.” Our self-limiting makes us look like roadblocks and allows publishers to dictate what they think is important to our communities. Do we do something as daring as lending a thing? Look at the popularity of tool libraries, and the word-flip of libraries lending tools. In a different sense, libraries such as Red Rocks Community College lend out tools for content creation and consumption without fear of reprisal. Limiting our vision of libraries as places where content is only consumed allows us to rely on our vendor-partners without reaching our full potential; and the assumption that we have no place in challenging the models of distribution and creation given to us might keep us in their good graces, but it will not help us serve our communities better. The idea of lending out stuff is an old idea for libraries, and compared to Ebook models it seems positively antique. This is the purposeful aging of libraries, the marginalization of our raison d’etre. Perhaps I’m romanticizing the past or even worse, our future ruin, but it’s an impulse worth pondering (thanks to Andrew Sullivan):

John Patrick Leary on Ruin Porn:

So much ruin photography and ruin film aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins, dramatizes spaces but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them, and romanticizes isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation…

Rob Horning on the same:

Ruin photos speak to our desperate desire to have our world re-enchanted. We want the banal structures and scenes of our everyday life dignified by the patina of decay, so that we can imagine ourselves as noble, mythic Greeks and Romans to a later age and, more important, so that we can better tolerate the frequently shoddy and trite material culture that consumerism foists on us, see it once again as capable of mystery.

Photograph by Yves Marchan and Romain Meffre courtesy Steidl.

As much as I like new technology, I also romanticize the old in libraries–the uniqueness that past objects and methods lend. They all speak to the heart of the matter: meaning. It is heartening that we understand this better than most. Look at the poster for the “library renewal“:

This is a lesson in romanticizing the past as a brand for the future. The vintage 70’s color palette, the use of skeleton keys as a placeholder for content delivered on portable devices, the anthropomorphic characters to remind us of books that we read when we were kids. These are the images we need to capitalize on, because our most recent gambit to try and be Amazon by way of Overdrive wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

2 thoughts on “The Public Library Ebook FAIL and the purposeful aging of libraries.

  1. Amazing post, and I couldn’t agree more! I experienced a flood of requests for e-books after the holidays when everyone had been gifted with new e-readers. And the entire Overdrive collection of the library was checked out. Want an e-book? Get on the waiting list.

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