I’ve got 26 problems but a book ain’t one.

Last week, Harper Collins sent a letter out to Overdrive, a company that acts as a vendor of ebooks for libraries. The letter stated that starting in March, any ebook purchased from Harper Collins will be set up so that it will only work 26 times. After 26 checkouts, the file is no longer active and a new “copy” of the title must be purchased to replace the old one. Harper Collins’ reasoning is that since ebooks never ever wear out, once a library buys a title, it never has to buy that title again. This differs from paper copies that libraries have traditionally purchased. Paper copies are physical objects that get stolen, go missing, get dropped in bathtubs, get eaten by pets and just plain wear out after a while. Libraries order replacement copies of popular and classic titles all the time, goes the Harper Collins’ argument, and assures a constant reliable customer that is self-perpetuating. Harper Collins’ further argues that since many smaller libraries join up with other smaller libraries, pool their resources and “go in together” to share ebook collections, publishers are further missing out on an increasingly smaller and smaller revenue stream.

Does this sound reasonable to you?

Before I give my thoughts on this issue, I must preface my remarks by saying that my views are not necessarily the views of my employer, nor are they the views of a particularly well-informed or connected mind. I’m just a dude temporarily entrusted with a medium-sized public library working under the impending threat of a potential strike.

A week ago Friday, news of the Harper Collins decision spread like wildfire throughout the world-wide library community. My twitter feed lit up with the hashtag #hcod (harpercollinsoverdrive, I’m assuming), and if you want to get more informed commentary on the issue, I encourage you to click on this hashtag and read for yourselves. Opinions ranged from supporting the publishers from the sneaky librarians, to an overall boycott of Harper Collins ebooks. My feeling from the informal number of tweets and blogs that I read, the overwhelming majority of authors, readers and librarians feel that this is not the way to go.

A quick aside: what is the proper way to write “ebooks”? Its one of those newly minted english words that takes a traditional word “book” and sticks an “e” in front of it to represent “electronic”. This site has a good discussion on the differing usages. It seems “e-book” is becoming the most accepted, but I’m lazy and stubborn and Irish and I find ebook quicker to write so I’m sticking with that until told I can’t.

Right, let’s crack on with the blog, shall we?

The most obvious result of the Harper Collins decision is that libraries will have to designate a larger % of their collection development budget to ebooks, at the detriment of other formats, primarily paper. At a time when library budgets are shrinking and we must justify every purchase, the end-user (i.e. all of us) ultimately loses out.

It will be interesting to see if an organized boycott of Harper Collins’ ebooks bears fruit. To Overdrive’s credit, they are making it easy for libraries to decide for themselves. They have separated out all the Harper Collins’ titles from all the other ones, so that when you go to purchase ebooks, you consciously have to go to the Harper Collins’ pool to get Harper Collins’ books. I know many library systems, including my own, have decided to NOT order any Harper Collins ebooks until the policy get changed.

This whole thing raises a wider fundamental issue: ebooks are not paper books. They really are different creatures and have to be thought of in a different way. When you buy a paper book, you OWN that book. The first sale doctrine says that once you own a book, you can do whatever the hell you want with it. You can sell it, loan it, burn it, eat it. This idea allows used bookstores and libraries to exist. When you buy an ebook, you don’t actually OWN anything. You’re renting access to a digital file. Not many people realize this, and would be surprised to find out that their Kindle downloads are exactly that: downloads. This site goes into way more detail about Digital Rights Management than I am qualified or prepared to talk about today.

Which brings us all back to Harper Collins’ decision to limit the number of checkouts on library ebooks. It got me thinking about the life cycle of an ebook vs. a paper book. In my library, we have a collection of approximately 70,000 physical items. I say “approximately” because unless I run a report, I have no idea how many items are here. First of all, as a rule of thumb, a third of our collection is always checked out, leaving two-thirds on the shelves at any one time. Also, we have a finite number of shelves to store things, and we get thousands of items added every year. This means its essential to get rid of older material to make way for the newer stuff. In library jargon, we call this “weeding”. Everyone learns in library school the CREW method of weeding. I’ve taken up enough time today for me to go into much detail about the CREW method, but when done properly, it revitalizes a library collection by removing material based on a comprehensive set of criteria. (Known as MUSTIE: librarians love acronyms like everyone else, apparently).

When a physical item is in need of withdrawing, we make a decision. Is it worth repairing? If the answer is no, then it is withdrawn and put into booksale, or if it’s in really rough shape, recycled. If it is worth repairing, we must ask “Is it repairable?” Will it cost more in staff time to repair it than to buy a replacement copy?

When space is an issue, we use different criteria. When a bestseller comes out, libraries order multiple copies to meet the huge initial demand. As little as a year later, when interest has waned, libraries are stuck with 5 or 6 copies of a formerly popular title. We need to weed all but one of these to make room. Often you can get wonderful deals on newish material in library booksales for this very reason.

My point with these two small weeding examples is that a lot of thought goes into managing a paper collection, but how much thought goes into managing a digital collection? Space is not an issue, except for maybe server space. Condition is not an issue: digital copies don’t get lost, stolen or wear out. This leaves only content as a relevant weeding criteria, and I honestly don’t know how much this is done. I have a feeling that digital ebooks are purchased, added to the database and then forgotten about. Perhaps the only upside of Harper Collins’ policy is that it will force public libraries to think about their digital collections as intelligently as they do with their paper collections. I suppose time will tell.

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One response to “I’ve got 26 problems but a book ain’t one.

  1. Pingback: Even Better than the Real Thing? | Mountains Beyond Mountains

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