Posted by: Steven Harris | May 26, 2009

Interlibrary eLoan

In some ways ebooks are a curse.  Did I just say that? Well, they are more like the best of things and the worst of things. The goodness is that they can be delivered across space and time in ways that print books cannot. The distance education kid (or baby boomer more likely) 100 miles away can access our collections at 3:30 a.m.  on a Sunday…right now! Users of our ebook collections can also interact with materials in new or more effective ways: searching, bookmarking, annotating, and saving all that online.

The downside? Ebooks from most publishers and vendors take away some of the rights that inhere in print books. First-sale doctrine, for example. You can’t buy a Kindle ebook file from Amazon and then turn around and sell the file to someone else. You could do that, perfectly legally, with a print book, but the DRM of the Kindle book (or Sony book) prevents that. The same is true of ebooks on the kinds of platforms that libraries tend to license: Ebrary, EBL, NetLibrary, and OverDrive. First sale doctrine holds that the original seller’s claim on the individual object (book, record, painting) ends with their sale of the object. The next owner can do whatever they want with it, as long as they don’t make additional copies.

Our society has also determined that libraries are within their rights to lend [physical] materials to other libraries or library systems. Ebooks and other digital objects don’t enjoy the same interlibrary loan rights. Or, I should say, the rights are not necessarily forbidden, but the technology makes it impractical. The licenses libraries sign to gain access to the materials may also expressly forbid it. One’s head swirls reading it, but DCMA, by the way, offers various library exemptions for archival or replacement purposes, but interlibrary loan is nebulous. A lot of the talk regarding digital interlibrary loan is aimed at copying tangible materials into a digital form and transmitting them to the requestor. I’d like to see us talk more about enabling interlibrary loan of digital collections themselves.

From a practical standpoint, how do I offer an ebook we have on Platform A to another library that does not have the same platform? Most such platforms make printing or downloading difficult as well. It’s nearly impossible to print out the book and send that as an ILL. Who would want to anyway? And forget about saving and transmitting a PDF file! Horrors!

Transmitting a PDF of the book would be one of the simpler solutions. I wouldn’t even mind if it were a DRM-protected PDF. Expires after a given time period. Another practical method would be to pass temporary permission to the borrowing library, regardless of whether they have licensed the platform in question. That is something that makes most vendors’ skin crawl. They are going to continue to stand by their terms of service and license agreements. You’ve signed. Now you have to live with the conditions. Librarians need to start asking them for different conditions. We need some way to lend ebooks as ebooks.



  1. I just did a search today on Google for “ebooks and interlibrary loan” and your post is one of the few results that came up. As a solo librarian at an academic institution, ebooks would make my life a lot easier, but I worry about what we are losing. Will I be able to get into resource sharing consortia if we don’t really have any “lendable content” of our own? And what about the student who requested a book today that I couldn’t find at any other library in print…only in ebook format? He doesn’t get the book. Who is winning here?

  2. It’s not a topic we’re talking about very much. All of your questions are great and something we (I!!!) don’t really have answers for. If we go mostly electronic v print for books, how can we share collections without a viable ebook lending procedure? Are we going to hurt our patrons if all libraries are predominantly ebook respositories? Scratching my head!

  3. I’ve used ILL fairly frequently for journal articles not available at the local university library, and all of the journal articles have come in PDF form. Trying to be green, I’m not printing them out, but I do save them for future reference. If we equate ebook readers and ipods, I have a feeling publishers will (sooner or later) equate chapters or journal articles with songs and start charging for them like songs on iTunes. I don’t have a problem with that, but I would hate to see them encumbered by DRM or high prices.

  4. Michael. I could go for a pay-per-chapter kind of arrangement. One day perhaps.

  5. I have actually gotten this question from students numerous times. They find an ebook that we don’t have access to, and don’t understand why we can’t get it for them. I hate to make excuses, but I have to tell them no, the publishers won’t let us do that. Maybe we need third party software or systems that make this possible? It would be nice, when a user requests an item, to allow them to choose the format that is best for them, especially with the proliferation of web-based educational programs.

  6. I love that you are discussing this. I would settle for a way for the library to put our copy on the patron’s ebook reader, to allow them to read comfortably and for a limited time. (Auto-expiration is the clear winner, here.) ILL hadn’t even entered my thinking.

    Seriously, I’ll say it again, I am so glad to see this being talked about. I gave a talk where I made this kind of suggestion, and people looked at me like I was crazy. But it’s important! Or will be, soon enough.

  7. This week I have had to turn down four ILL requests because of this exact issue. As our library continues to move towards more eBooks, this problem is only going to get worse.

    If only there were a way to treat this, as you mentioned, like the PDF of an article. An imperfect, temporary copy created only for individual educational use – which is exactly what we want to do! Love the idea of the time-sensitive DRM-protected PDF file!

  8. Interesting. I have a friend who has discovered audio books at his local library and loves them. After the lending period, they simply go away. Perhaps, as ebook readers continue to advance, we will someday be able to loan ebooks like audio books.

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