With the release of the Sony Reader, the Amazon Kindle, and other e-book readers, I’ve been wondering about how libraries currently offer e-book collections and services to the public. The most common method in academic libraries is through platforms like NetLibrary, Ebrary, MyiLibrary, EBL, etc. There are several reasons: platforms are an easy way to provide large collections with little effort; authenticating patrons is done through one website; no worries about downloads and DRM; no worries about dealing with compatibility issues for patrons.
All of those are good reasons for just turning the key on an e-book platform and letting the patron have at it. I, however, think that platforms like these are an evolutionary dead end. There are several reasons why I hold this view. Lack of mobility is first and foremost. Users are chained to a webpage and a PC. No portable reader use, no PDA use, no cell phone use. They are also chained to a particular file format. No interoperability. I believe, in the long run, mobility and interoperability are the future for e-books. [insert: we need to make it so!]
There seems to be a strange divide for download versus platform e-books that runs right between public and academic libraries. This is primarily because of content. The platform vendors are really going after the academic book market. Download services like OverDrive are heavy into bestsellers, popular reading, and genre fiction. Why is this so? Why are the vendors sticking with this model? Why do we all assume that mobility is unimportant for the academic market? Why can’t I download an Oxford University Press book to my cell phone? (There are a few places where you can.) Some of this may be due to the paranoia of university press managers. I think it is misplaced. DRM can easily manage the loan period of a downloaded book.
The proprietary formats of readers like Sony and Kindle are also a problem. All of these firms should be moving toward the epub standard. Sony and Amazon, however, have this fantasy that the big bucks will be made through their proprietary store in the manner of iTunes. Sony is using its own BBeB format. You can load PDF files on the Sony. They don’t operate as well as the BBeB files, frankly. The Kindle is using a format that is based on Mobipocket. Kindle can view DRM-free Mobipocket files but not those purchased from other vendors with DRM. Big stumbling block for the e-book reading world. What if Random House books, sitting on the shelf in the bookstore, sought out and destroyed anything from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, just so the reader wouldn’t have access to them?
Teleread has some good reasons why the epub standard is good. For one thing, an open standard would allow users to create their own content more readily. Kindle users have to submit their files to a magic box at Amazon to have files converted. (A lot of hue and cry about having to pay 10 cents for that service, but one can forgo the fee by having files delivered back to the email address rather than directly to the Kindle.)
Mini fantasy: Users should be able to visit their library online, browse or search the available e-books, and download what they need to whatever device they use. At a commercial e-book store, customers should be able to download and move their files between any device that is registered or identified as theirs. My wife, for example, can’t read my Kindle files on her Sony Reader and vice versa. On what planet is it UNacceptable for me to buy a book, read it, and then hand it to my wife so she can read it?