Posted by: Steven Harris | October 21, 2010

I got your ebook manifesto right here!

It is clear that 2010 is being widely recognized as that singular moment when the ebook broke loose, when mention of ebooks in the reading community stimulated thoughts of “sooner than you think” rather then “not quite yet,” when Kindle downloads outstripped hardback sales at Amazon, when the tipping point had finally been reached. The platforms, formats, and marketplace all seem poised to make the ebook the standard of how books are published and distributed. Libraries, too, are poised to take advantage of this and offer the ebook form to their users. But, it seems, it is still a time when publishers are very concerned about the shareable nature of digital files. Where the right of first sale had always been the library’s greatest tool in the sharing of tangible materials, publishers now see the opportunity with digital materials to require more stringent restrictions on lending. Some would have license agreements prohibit uses that prevail with physical books. But just as bad, some would have the use of ebooks mirror exactly the use of physical books. Thus, we have news today of the Publishers Association in the United Kingdom announcing an agreement to allow libraries to loan ebooks, to allow library patrons to download ebook files, but ONLY IF THEY ARE ON THE PREMISES OF THE LIBRARY!

It’s hard to imagine a move that is more sinister and threatening to libraries. Certainly, it has a smiling, beneficent side: “Sure, you can loan our ebooks in your library.” But then the evil smirk comes to the corner of the mouth: “But only if they come into the library and plug their device into your computer. BWA HA HA!” If ebook publishing really does become the standard within a few years, this kind of policy will be the death knell for libraries. Print books have always had great benefits; that is why it has been an effective technology for over 500 years. The only reason to move forward with ebooks is to capture those benefits that print books can’t provide: freedom from a particular physical manifestation–rapid and wide distribution–multiple users of the content (I was going to say “a single file,” but in the digital world that DOESN’T EVEN MAKE SENSE.) Eli Neiburger had it right in a recent presentation at the LJ ebook summit. Library users want to reap the benefits of digital technology. The notion of waiting in line for a digital loan is ridiculous. There is no physical reason why ebook use should be limited that way. The same holds for requiring geographic proximity to a physical location. (The PA agreement makes not only the requirement of visiting the library, but also that the library must maintain secure “geographic membership” requirements.) Of course, the reasons for limitation are purely economic.

Just as libraries are set to move beyond the limitations of geography, the publishers are prepared to thwart that progress. Many academic libraries serve users that are widely scattered. A little thing we call distance education. Digital information is a great boon to that kind of educational offering. But even public libraries have the potential to serve widely dispersed users. But the Publishers Association has other ideas. “Hello, good citizens in Barrow, Alaska. We have a wonderful ebook collection available for your use. Please come to the State Library in Juneau to download these materials at your convenience.”

Thus, I find that I must present this as my EBOOKS IN LIBRARIES MANIFESTO:

  1. The digital nature of ebooks offers great benefits that publishers and libraries should learn to exploit together.
  2. Clinging to practices that held sway in the physical book environment will be counterproductive to ebook uptake.
  3. Libraries will be as important to the uptake of ebook technology as marketing campaigns by publishers.
  4. Libraries must be allowed to distribute ebooks electronically to widely dispersed users.
  5. Libraries must be allowed to circulate an ebook to multiple users at a time.
  6. Authorized library users must be allowed to download an ebook to the device of their choosing, without being required to visit a physical library.
  7. Libraries are willing to implement some limit on the length of use of the downloaded ebook (DRM if you will). The library would not be giving away ownership of ebook files. Let the library select a limit that is best for its user population.
  8. Libraries are willing to adopt different pricing models for innovative digital services. Certainly, a multi-user ebook will be priced differently than a single print book. But the cost cannot be a factor of the total user population. Total actual use is a more realistic gauge of price. Libraries are willing pay more for heavily used materials. In turn, we would like to pay nothing for unused materials. Let us abandon “just in case” costs and focus on actual use. Digital makes that possible.
  9. Certainly, the copy-ability of ebooks could be a threat to publisher profits, but it is unlikely that such copying will be from library collections.
  10. Librarians are not pirates.

I’m hoping we can sustain enough librarian outrage to keep North American publishers from adopting agreements like that of the Publishers Association. Don’t bring that crap here! I jokingly tweeted, Let it be known as the Great Ebook Blog Storm of October 21, 2010Jason Griffey and Andy Woodworth have come through with thoughtful posts, along with Ian Clark and CILIP in the UK. Librarians: talk to vendors and publishers about this topic every opportunity you get. They need to realize we are a benefit to their ebook futures. If they want us to buy their offerings, we need to be able to make full use of the strengths of ebooks. Don’t hold us back through some misguided sense of protecting yourselves.

Another response from the public library sector in the UK from “Voices in the Library.”



  1. The reaction of some in the paper/ink community to ebooks must be similar to those who operated scriptoriums when Gutenberg built his first press.

    The ebook is the future of reading/writing.

  2. I really think the library profession needs to develop and promulgate a formal bill of rights for readers in the digital era, pulling in items from your manifesto and others articulated elsewhere. Rights, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If readers (and librarians, working on behalf of readers) don’t assert and defend our rights as we all move boldly into the digital reading era, someone else will snatch them up or just ignore them.

    • I think Steven’s manifesto is an excellent first step in that direction.

  3. As someone who has spent 5 of the last 24 months living in the USA, and the rest of the time (and most of the previous 40 years) living in the UK, this – wearily – does not surprise. It’s an endemic UK bureaucratic, socio-economic and political mindset. Most, very nearly all, people will shrug their shoulders here at the ebook thing. Or say (as many have done this summer) ‘Why do we need libraries anyway?’

    It’s also understandable why so many Americans, and American librarians, have found this utterly bizarre today. There are so many sector, businesses, services, in the US where there is an implicit “customer is king” ethos, running from management downwards. One example of many being American restaurants, in which I’ve had several hundred great service experiences and just three bad or indifferent ones. In the UK, it’s often – not always, but often – a psychological battle between the diner and a passive-aggressive member of stuff.

    Public libraries here are better (than our restaurants). Front line staff are often or usually helpful and accommodating. But they are constrained by funding, practice, regulations and a political and social mindset that the ebook madness exemplifies. When visiting the USA I am repeatedly utterly in awe of the public libraries, and the collections, facilities, services, space, room to work and demographic outreach they do. One example of many is the main library in Toledo, Ohio, which I wandered round with my jaw dropped; there’s nowhere comparable in Britain to it that I’ve found yet.

    This is turning into a rant, so I’ll stop now and do something more productive. Like, emigrate 🙂

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ian Clark, Steven R. Harris, Chad Black, Simon Barron, Kathy Lussier and others. Kathy Lussier said: RT @srharris19: Finally my post: I got your ebook manifesto right here: Riffing on @griffey @wawoodworth and @ijclark […]

  5. Great thought, Tom. Rights abhor a vacuum.

  6. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment of your post, Steve. It’s so frustrating going to an online resource through a library’s web portal, for which the university pays quit a bit of money, and being told I can’t read the resource because 1 or 2 other patrons have it opened elsewhere. This never happens, of course, with journal articles. Why the distinction?

    I know that journal databases come fraught with their own problems (recurrent costs, moving walls, etc.). But, it’s as if publishers have forgotten that I can already make an electronic copy of their book that is fully text-searchable and very portable simply by scanning and ocr’ing it.

    I guess, in the end, publishers that can’t rethink their role and their distribution models by adapting to technology will wither away. And, if publishers want to build walls around their content, people will simply avoid that content and distribute some other way.

  7. […] Steven Harris: I got your ebook manifesto right here! […]

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