On eBooks, Users and Libraries

A good, thoughtful post by Carl Grant on the rise of electronic reading, and what it means for users and hence for the libraries that wish to serve them. Carl makes the general point that we as information professionals must pay more attention to the actual needs and wonts of our users -- needs that are surely shifting rapidly under our feet at the moment. I certainly agree with this, and even beyond this, I believe that libraries, to survive, must be more than passive service-providers: They must be advocates and agents, figthing to influence developing practices and regulations in the digital domain in the interest of their users, just as libraries have historically played an active role in making information available to people as freely as possible.

I'm a recent eBook convert (I use the Kindle app and Stanza on my iPhone), and I've found it to be an eye-opening experience. The ease and allure of carrying a universal-ish library and bookstore in your pocket provokes reflection about the future of librarianship in a world where a substantial amount of reading will involve nothing more physical than a wireless transaction between a mobile device and a service provider somewhere.

Part of the practical role of libraries has been predicated by the real, physical scarcity and cost of printed materials (well -- at least those printed materials we want!). In a digital environment, that scarcity has been replaced by one arguably much more confusing: The licensing and DRM (digital rights management) schemes that are imposed by different content creators, aggregators, and publishers. These schemes are created either to build new business models, or to protect old ones. Since these schemes rely either on the encryption of texts or on contracts (i.e. licenses) or some combination of both, they can supersede the rights that are afforded us by copyright law. Nowhere is this more evident than when publishers reissue public domain works under restrictive licenses (Stephen Fishman writes well about this in The Public Domain). To be sure, if I purchase an eBook from Amazon, it offers some benefits over a physical book (it fits in my pocket), but it has many limitations. I can't resell it, it's hard to give it to a friend or member of my family when I'm done. As Amazon so clumsily has demonstrated, I can't even be sure I still have access to it in the morning, if they should find cause to retract it. I am limited to accessing it on device or software sanctioned by the bookseller. The list goes on.

It has been observed that in some respects, you really don't buy a commercial eBook today; you rent it. Moreover, the terms of the rental are not in any way regulated -- the bookseller can stipulate whatever terms they like, and you can either accept those terms or hope that someone else will sell you the same work under different terms.

My point is that libraries and library organizations have a very real interest -- indeed a professional obligation -- to not only be aware of these developments but to exert all the power at their disposal to lobby and affect outcomes. Surely over time, issues of user's rights as they pertain to written works will find a balance, and that balance will be driven by a number of factors, including comptetition in the marketplace, pressure from interest groups, and perhaps legislative intervention. Libraries and their organizations, from the smallest local library to the Library of Congress, ALA and IFLA, can and must do their part to stand up for the interests of the individual users.

Update: Excellent, passionate post in this area by Eric Hellman. A Reading Miracle. It May Be Legal, but Don't Ask the Grox.