Shy away from criticism of the Harvard-hosted Digital Public Library of America initiative? Never when it’s merited.
Since the early 1990s, I’ve been pushing for a well-stocked national digital library system, and I want the system to shine in every way, no matter who stars in its creation—Harvard or Sloppy Joe’s.
In Harvard’s case, I actually see huge positives, and a prime exhibit might be the e-book mess in Kansas, as described by Michael Kelley in Library Journal. We need a good alternative to the ugly status quo. The DPLA has the names and foundation connections to help create one if it will clarify its purposes and goals, respect public and school libraries, improve diversity, and otherwise shape up and reinvent itself. A strong national digital library effort would also make it easier to deal outrages beyond the Kansas horrors, such as HarperCollins’s limit of 26 borrowings per e-book copy.
So what’s happening in Kanas and potentially a lot of other places? In a nutshell, librarians reportedly fear loss of access to e-books if they can’t resolve their differences with OverDrive, the biggest provider of e-books for public libraries. OverDrive wants to jack up some fees and ditch a clause in the current contract. As analyzed by Library Journal, the language “appears to oblige OverDrive to transfer content to another service provider if the contract is terminated, but it is unclear what that would entail.”
Meanwhile, the more e-books public libraries keep picking up from OverDrive and other vendors, the more uncertainty here. That’s just one of the dangers when digital library books typically reside on the servers of vendors, and it’s a good illustration of why we need a national digital library sooner rather than later.
I can see OverDrive’s side, too, since library e-books have many more readers in Kansas—a ten-fold circulation increase, according to the company—than when the contract was signed in 2005. OverDrive must operate within the constraints that publishers insist on. What’s more, I don’t think OverDrive is in it for the money alone. CEO Steve Potash and others, including his wife, Loree, a trained librarian, have been at this for years. They deserve consideration as one of many possible contractors that the national digital library system might use, just so the terms are right and proper controls are in place. OverDrive is looking out for its interests (I lack the details to determine who’s right about the fees and would welcome opinions from both sides). And that’s the built-in structural problem—since OverDrive is a middleman without all the clout to use with content providers, meaning that it’s tempted to pass costs down the line, especially with all the complexities and expenses that proprietary DRM creates.
Still, as has been documented by people ranging from bloggers to an Associated Press writer, e-books are not library-patron-friendly despite OverDrive’s considerable progress in this area so far and more ahead. How much simpler it would be, both legally and technically, if everything resided on the servers of a national digital library system or systems that could negotiate more effectively with publishers and create and promote original content if the usual suspects proved to be too balky. And maybe experiment with new business models, too—ones not so reliant on DRM.
Right now, perhaps indirectly due to the publishing community’s pressure on OverDrive and Adobe, I can’t even read e-books on one of my iPad apps, the Bluefire reader.
The embedded Adobe DRM—or should I say a variant meant to work with OverDrive’s servers?—isn’t accepting my email address. More than 12 hours after I submitted the complaint, Adobe’s techies still don’t know what to do, assuming they can do anything. I may simply be over my “device limit” as perceived by Adobe’s back office systems since, on some of my devices, the DRM shows up within more than one program. And perhaps when I sold hardware in the past, I didn’t formally decommission the app first even though I wiped my mass storage clean. Who knows? What I can say is that this is just one example of the technical hassles have slowed the growth of both library and retail e-books. The biggest miracle of e-bookdom might be its current size, achieved even with obstacles from publishing houses; consider how far e-books have gone without all the resistance.
Now imagine a national digital library system, or mix of tightly coordinated efforts, that would be fair to publishers and others but run for the good of the country as a whole (and with legal arrangements far friendlier to libraries, as well as either no DRM or a much-easier-to-live-with variety).
I could sum up my full list of specifics of what it would take for Harvard to treat libraries and schools well and otherwise improve, but I’ll give the DPLA a break for now and wish its people the very best of luck as part of the movement to realize the full potential of digital libraries and end uncertainties and other horrors such as those in Kansas.
Along with the Harper26Collins, the Kansas mess is a perfect example of the follies of not moving swiftly toward a full-scale national digital library effort.
Coming this week or next: Some more observations—from accounting and budgetary perspectives—on the perils of lumping together academic and public libraries within one entity at the national level, even though I favor a common infrastructure and standards for the sake of simplicity for library-users. In yet another post, I’ll discuss the educational benefits of making recreational reading available not just to school children of all socioeconomic groups, but also to their parents.