My dog turns nine this year. He’s my library dog – I started library school shortly after Cooper came bounding into my tiny apartment, hellbent on stealing my roommate’s bras. My puppy’s graying muzzle made me realize that I’m not a new librarian anymore. So forgive me this little trip down memory lane.
Lo these many years ago, I worked as a reference librarian at a library that signed up with these newfangled services NetLibrary and Overdrive. I made umpteen Powerpoints for staff and patrons on how to download ebooks (it wasn’t any simpler then). Patrons thought we were making the term “e-book” (and it had a hyphen) up. Who would ever want to read on a screen? But a few tried it. It was often a resource of last resort – the only item we had on the subject they needed was an ebook or all the paper copies were out. But every person who tried it asked me the same thing: why can’t more than one person have a “book” at the same time? I usually told them that it was how the vendors structured the service and they didn’t want to be book Napster, but agreed it was kind of silly. One guy argued with me about it for several minutes, thinking I was unclear on how digital information worked (yet somehow capable of designing the entire ebook distribution infrastructure).
Explaining vendor policies to patrons is an exquisite kind of torment. We’re bound by them and often feel that we have to sign up for services with restrictions we don’t like in order to meet patron demand, yet libraries take the brunt of the blame from our patrons. My consortium manages an Overdrive collection for participating members and I do not envy my coworkers the task of explaining the HarperCollins mess to our members and to the patrons that contact us (and I really feel for our member libraries who have seen an explosion in interest in ebooks).
I spend most of my time these days at small-to-tiny public libraries. They want to offer ebooks and thanks to their consortium membership, they sometimes can. Some of them are too small and broke to buy into our Overdrive membership. These are seriously committed, hard-working librarians who offer vital services and love their communities. If HarperCollins wants to argue that books usually get 26 circs, fine. Come to my libraries and watch them carefully repair their materials with book tape. Watch them fret over the cost of buying one copy of each book on the best seller list and trying to decide which of the top ten they absolutely have to buy. Come spend time with librarians who build collections on the kindness of their patrons who buy books and donate them when they’ve read them. If they learn to carefully patch together the bits and bytes in an ebook, can they eke 40 circs out of it? Can their patrons donate their used copies from their kindles and ipads?
I know, I know, publishers need to make money. I get that, I’m sympathetic – I’d like it if libraries and librarians (and authors, for that matter) could make more money. But we’re on your side. We want people to want your product. We want to build so much buzz for that first-time author that our wait list becomes unbearable and people buy their own copies (and then give them to us when they’re done). You want to lease us your materials. We could probably work with that – lots of libraries lease paper books, after all. But we decide when to lease and when to buy.
And if you’re going to use this technology to impose restrictions on us, why not use it to break out of the paper-based mental model a little bit? Librarians are going to be stuck explaining this policy to patrons, who are going to walk out thinking we’re fools for going along with this. How can we, with straight faces, tell the book-loving public that ebooks are going to really catch on if we also have to tell them that ebooks are actually *more* restrictive than paper. If they’re going to self-destruct, at least let multiple people read them simultaneously. It’s just sad that we – and by we, I mean everyone: readers, librarians, authors, publishers, everyone who consumes information – are looking at a whole new way to distribute and consume content and the first thing that happens is a move to cut libraries out of the picture.
As for the publisher “concern” over consortia – are you kidding me? This feel like insult on top of injury in light of Connecticut’s recent budget announcements. Connecticut has two statewide programs that really define our library services – Connecitcard, which is statewide reciprocal borrowing, and Connecticar, which is a little group of vans that move library materials around the state. These are relatively cheap programs that make our libraries incredibly powerful. Of course, they’re on the chopping block in the governor’s budget. Shared resources make every library in Connecticut better. I work for the largest consortium in the state and have seen the power of those programs magnified with even more resource sharing. As it is, our libraries that don’t participate in our Overdrive program find themselves with lots of confused patrons who can’t figure out why they can go to the library in the next town over and borrow physical materials but not digital items. If the ability to share a collection goes away, I can’t imagine it will mean anything but lost customers for Overdrive.
If we’re really about information and not just books, we have to figure this out. We’re just putting more and more middlemen in between our patrons and the content they want. Now it’s not just vendors, but the software they choose and platforms they’ll support and policies they’ll create. Ebooks should be an exciting new frontier and librarians should be front lines innovators, working with readers to enhance their experience with the content publishers provide. This shouldn’t be the death knell for libraries. Sarah’s call to action cannot be overstated.
I realize I’m frequently drawing metaphors to the print world here, even as I’m saying we should shed those limitations. I thought about going back and “correcting” that, but left it in, because it represents the messiness of figuring out the emergence of ebooks as a viable container. A twitter buddy asked if HarperCollins was just struggling to figure this out with the rest of us or if this was really an “evil empire” kind of move. In my more charitable moments, I think they’re probably working their way through this shift and hey, at least they sell to libraries.
But this is a decision that treats libraries like freeloaders, like the cousin who crashes on your couch “for a week” between jobs and is still there months later, running up your electric bill and eating your good cheese. Libraries are a vital part of the publishing world, the friend who borrows a cup of sugar, and brings back your measuring cup with a cake. It’s really good cake, too, delicious enough to make the borrowed sugar a negligible cost. Don’t break down our door in the middle of the night, demanding that we give back a pound of sugar for every cup we’ve ever borrowed. Enjoy the damn cake.