Posted by: Katie | June 10, 2011

Libraries and ebook portability

There have been a number of posts on the topic of ebook portability when it comes to individual consumers. I don’t know if there has been much discussion of this issue as it affects institutions, however. This is a topic that I know I haven’t been as explicit about when speaking as I have meant to be.

Currently, libraries are locked into a specific platform when they purchase ebooks. When they leave the platform, they leave the ebooks behind. This is an issue for any library in terms of the money spent on building that collection, but also for libraries which have a specific archival mission. I want ebook files to be separate from the patron delivery platforms for libraries. Academic (and public) libraries have long faced a version of this issue as it relates to article databases. If a library cuts a subscription to a particular journal title, they generally lose access to all years they have previously purchased of that title. Some aggregators may allow access to the purchased years if the library continues to contract with the aggregator for other titles, but if the library does not renew with the aggregator at all, access is completely lost. However, the slight difference I see is that where records for individual books are fairly agnostic to library catalog/search platforms and many public libraries already employ people who specialize in creating records for books, journal producers usually have exclusive relationships with article aggregators, the indexing of the articles by the aggregator may also be part of that relationship, and not many academic libraries (that I know of) employ someone who indexes articles.

Going back to the money issue, ebooks are generally a small portion of a library’s materials budget currently. However, when compiled over a number of years, and if the library is a part of a consortium, the value of the collection can easily be in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousand of dollars. Some larger libraries may have ebook collections worth millions. When you’ve invested that kind of money in one collection, and you can’t take the files with you if you were to sever your relationship with the delivery platform company, it’s hard to contemplate moving to a different delivery platform. Frankly, this is why Overdrive has a near-monopoly on the public library market for ebooks. They have one of the largest catalogs from which to select titles, which draws in libraries, but libraries can’t leave because they would lose the collections they’ve spent a large amount of money in terms of cash and man-hours developing. If ebook files were portable between delivery platforms, libraries would also be able to develop direct relationships with publishers. Few libraries do this anyway print books, mainly because few buy in the volume (especially of individual titles) needed to generate a discount equal to what they can obtain through a distributor. A direct relationship with publishers would allow for more experimentation of purchase models, such as “I will pay X amount per year for unlimited access to Y amount of titles in your catalog and we can change which titles we have access to every year.”

Which then brings up the issue of archival missions for some public libraries. Not every library has an archival mission, or if they do, it is limited to items of local history interest. Historically, this is because of the limited amount of space libraries have compared to the amount information produced in print. Digital collections significantly reduce space concerns for collections. Other concerns are presented, but that’s a *whole other* litany. Libraries have the ability to be more focused and concerned about building a collection that is archival in nature, and apply the designation of “archival” to a broader class of titles. Until libraries are allowed to own digital files, rather than license them, this potential will not be realized.

At the end of the BEA panel, I said my biggest concern about ebooks in libraries was a long-range/long-view one: copyright. There is no such provision similar to the First Sale Doctrine for non-tangible digital items. I would like to at least see an exemption to this for libraries where we *are* allowed to *own* the files we purchase. I am looking forward to see what happens with EQUAAC and DPLA, and I hope both of these committees, and any other ones formed to investigate the issue of ebooks in libraries, would look deeper into the issues I’ve presented here.



  1. I am really looking forward to seeing what happens over the next few years in all of these topics considering digital downloads. It would be one thing if the materials were treated as subscription licenses, but they really are not? They are treated like print materials. We cannot have it both ways, but then neither should the publishers and platform providers.

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