Not enough library e-books to feed your new gadget properly? Well-stocked national digital library systems could help

theracketeerjohngrishamsIf you can’t find the right library e-books for your new Kindle, Nook, iPad or other gizmo, you’re not alone.

More than 100 patrons of the District of Columbia Public Library were lined up electronically today for 10 e-book copies of The Racketeer, John Grisham’s new novel about the murder of a federal judge. Some 400+ D.C. library users awaited 60 electronic copies of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, the best-selling fiction title on the New York Times list. And a digital version of The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling, was not even in the catalog of the D.C. public library system.

wfbcolumn2Could a well-stocked national digital library system—in fact, two of them, one public, one academic—be a solution for Washingtonians and others?

My political opposite, the late William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote two “On the Right” column in favor of the idea in the 1990s. President Obama and Congress should catch up with WFB. I myself have been on the case for the past two decades.

The national digital library issue, a K-12, jobs and poverty issue in disguise, merits at least a brief mention and ideally more in the State of the Union address. No question about the need. Washington library patrons are hardly alone in their plight, as shown by similar statistics from some other major library systems and by recent coverage on National Public Radio, where, among other things, you’ll find that Random House can charge a library $100 to license a new e-copy (see Library Journal for yet more details).

At the same time the Pew Foundation Internet and American Life Project says that “in the past year the number of those who read e-books increased from 16 percent of all Americans ages 16 and older to 23 percent.” Coincidentally or not, Pew says “the number of those who read printed books in the previous 12 months fell from 72 percent of the population ages 16 and older to 67 percent.”

worldreaderThe e-library issue goes far beyond bestsellers and other entertainment. A relationship exists between children’s academic achievements and the number of books they can enjoy at home, and potentially e-books could be huge encouragers of family literacy. One of the best ways to get students reading is for their mothers and fathers to act as role models, even if parents’ books are about their own diverse interests rather than their children’s. (Yes, more e-books of appeal to low-income people and members of minorities would help.)

With colorful pop-up art and other treats, paper books can be a great way to turn toddlers in time into readers. But when it comes to slashing costs and increasing availability of titles matching K-12 students’ precise interests, nothing beats the possibilities of e-books. The technology is only going to get cheaper and better, as shown by Worldreader’s successful use of Kindle E Ink machines in schools in the African bush (above image). Kindles once were $399 luxuries. Now they go for as little as $69 retail and eventually, I suspect, will cost a fraction of that.

Publishing is a conservative industry, and many tradition-bound publishers still don’t understand that e-books can make public libraries far more of a financial opportunity. An analyst for Bernstein Research has determined that 40 percent of Americans lack disposable income after paying for necessities. We need for as many books as possible to be free or at least irresistibly affordable. Current business models for book publishers deserve reexamination. Of the $2,600 that the average American household spends annually on entertainment, according to Department of Labor statistics, just $115 goes for nontextbook books and other reading. That’s a disgraceful .23 percent of “U.S. Consumer Unit Expenditures” excluding taxes. Ever-more restrictive copyright laws and stricter technological controls on e-book use—when even now you typically can’t legally pass on copy-“protected” digital books to your children—would backfire and make books even less competitive financially against movies and computer games.

Society and the industry alike need a new and better approach, then, especially with so many publishers under siege. Hello, former Congressman Tom Allen (president and CEO at the Association of American Publishers and an ex-Rhodes Scholar as well as a Harvard Law graduate)? Maybe your New Year’s resolution should be to convince publishers to spend a little less time on copyright fights with libraries and a lot more time working with them toward well-funded national digital libraries, with, of course, fair compensation for writers, publishers and other professional content creators. Ideally the military-industrial complex will inspire the creation of a publisher-library complex.

Allen’s bio page on the site mentions the AAP’s mission as “protecting copyright” and helping publishers “meet 21st-century challenges.” But regardless of copyright’s importance—I, too, am a believer—mightn’t the second mission count even more?

Does the AAP care more about publisher-perfect copyright law or the prosperity of its members? And what about Allen’s description of himself as “passionate about books and reading my whole life”? A publisher-library complex—and, yes, I would expect compromise from the library community, too—would not only enrich his members but also help him share The Love.

Some related ideas:

  • No, as literacy promoters, e-books can’t replace parents, teachers, librarians and brick-and-mortar libraries. Libraries are community centers and are about a lot more than simply books per se. Nothing beats humans as sources of inspiration and raisers of expectations (PDF); parent-to-child reading is the ultimate social medium. Family literacy programs should not only teach reading but also offer very specific tips to receptive mothers and fathers on how to encourage it.
  • Public libraries will never be able to immediately lend every book for free—bestsellers included—without at least some patrons suffering waiting periods. But libraries can experiment with different business models offering different options for patrons (same for arrangements with publishers) and even blend their own Netflix-style service into their catalogs, as well as offer links to commercial booksellers and renters. I’m not worried about public libraries driving commercial rental operations out of business. The priorities will always be different, with the eyes of Jeff Bezos and friends strictly on the bottom line.
  • Via the national digital public library system, public libraries could also offer locally branded electronic lockers from which patrons could forever be able to download even copy-“protected” books they had bought commercially. Thanks to changing forms of Digital Rights Management, I can no longer read certain e-books bought at the Fictionwise, an independent e-bookstore gobbled up by Barnes & Noble. Amazon stranded some customers years ago when it back off from the PDF format. The best DRM is none, of course, as I see it as both a writer and booklover, but I’m a realist and also understand how libraries use it on loaned books to enforce expirations. One compromise option for consumer-owned books might be social DRM, a form of digital watermarking, which doesn’t suffer the same tech-related incompatibilities as genuine DRM does. DRM systems actually drive some customers to download pirated e-books without onerous usage restrictions, and they can interfere with special accessibility measures for people with disabilities.
  • Both public and academic digital library systems could share a common technological infrastructure to store e-books and help make them accessible, and a good shortcut would be the purchase of OverDrive, the world’s largest supplier of e-books to public libraries (details of the proposal here and here). The Digital Public Library of America, originated at Harvard Law School, Allen’s alma mater, could work with OverDrive’s existing people on new business models while taking care not to unnecessarily alienate publishers. Teaming up with the others could be tech-hip public librarians such as those with the Douglas County, Colorado, system. As for access issues, the smartest response would be to work to close the digital divide, not hobble public libraries with an insistence that most everything be on paper.
  • Financing of the OverDrive takeover and more could come at least partly from philanthropists such as the Buffett family and maybe even—the choice is his—from the Washington area’s own David Rubenstein. Don’t count on Warren Buffett’s friend Bill Gates, to whom Buffett has farmed out so much of his philanthropy. Gates’ efforts to wire up libraries and schools, as well as his public health campaigns, have enriched the world. But for some reason, Bill Gates so far has refused to give away content in a meaningful way, perhaps because he still chairs Microsoft and owns 100 percent of the separate Corbis image collection. I might as well be suggesting that Andrew Carnegie donate steel. Ideally Gates will recognize Corbis as a means, not an end, and donate at least some of its holdings (just as I would recommend that Rubenstein buy some images for the public domain from Getty Images, now owned by the Rubenstein-founded Carlyle Group). Similarly, how about about efforts to donate still-under-copyright masterpieces, like The Great Gatsby, a personal favorite of his, to the public domain? If Gates keeps refusing—no known action so far on the Gatsby suggestion, made during the 1990s—this is one more indication of the need for the Buffett family, Rubenstein and others to step up to the plate. Let’s hope that Gates and his people will reconsider, and, in fact, a recent survey from the Gates Foundation gives me the impression that the foundation is rethinking the library-related components of its mission.
  • OverDrive is an international company, and if it were reborn in a nonprofit incarnation, that actually would work out for the better, since this could expedite the flow of e-books to and from the U.S., and the related technology could contribute to the development of national digital library systems all over the world without nonstandard technology to encumber them. My Barnes & Noble experiences show the dangers of not caring about openness and standards. In situations where there must be traditional DRM, let it at least be nonproprietary.

Even the best-stocked national digital library systems aren’t necessarily going to propel you to the top of the list for a free loan of the latest Grisham, but whether the cause is education, family literacy, or preservation of books as an important medium in our culture, digital libraries could be a life-improver for many and help ailing publishers along the way.

Update, 9:27 a.m., January 1, 2013: Slightly tweaked in various places.

Update, 1:40 p.pm., January 3, 2013: A shorter version of this commentary is now in the Georgetown Dish.

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