Libraries, e-Books and Publishers

Earlier today, I saw these two posts on the front page of Digital Shift, Library Journal’s tech news site (highlighting mine.) It seemed to be the perfect ironic illustration of some of the competing forces on today’s libraries.

Public and school libraries are in trouble. They loan out lots of fiction and other text-heavy books. They want to loan out electronic versions of these books. Their patrons want to borrow these e-books. Yet there are increasingly fewer ways to enable these exchanges.

A lot of libraries do not buy e-books directly from the publishers. Instead they buy access to collections via a distributor. On February 10, 2012, Penguin ended its relationship with OverDrive, the biggest player in the library e-book marketplace. In response, the Librarian in Black has posted a call to action.

Publishers are wary. They worry that their content – their intellectual property – will be easily pirated and that sales of their books (and e-books) will go down. So, they restrict access to their e-books through Digital Rights Management (DRM) and licensing terms, such as allowing e-books to be borrowed by only one patron at a time. In fact, HarperCollins has decreed that its e-books may only be circulated 26 times for 2 weeks each, regardless of an individual library’s actual lending policies. (Psst – here are our circulation policies.)

Unshelved, February 13, 2012.

There are many other factors and considerations about the e-books market. I haven’t even mentioned authors’ rights or how difficult it can be to download an e-book from a library. New methods to distribute and acquire e-books are being discussed and tested. Print books are becoming fetish objects.

What About Otis?

The Otis Library has access to thousands of academic books via ebrary. Most of them even appear in the Library Catalog with direct links. We do not use OverDrive, so we are not facing some of the same issues as public and school libraries. These books may be viewed simultaneously by two or more patrons.

We have other considerations. Our physical book collection focuses on art, art history, and design. Most of these items are not available as e-books because they are typically produced by small publishers (and galleries) and are heavily illustrated. Even if electronic editions of these items did exist, the illustrations may not have been scanned or only be available in black-and-white.

The situation is changing; more people are reading books via mobile phones and smart tablets, such as the iPad. New e-book readers, such as the Kindle Fire and Nook Color, can display color images at medium-to-high quality. Regardless of the device, though, the illustrations may be completely unavailable in the e-books. Here is a typical disclaimer (via ebrary):

This figure has intentionally been removed for copyright reasons. To view this image, please refer to the printed version of this book.

Yes, e-books from ebrary (and Google Books and OverDrive etc.) may not contain the same content as the print version. Typography, pagination and layout can also vary.

What do you think? Should e-books in libraries be treated just like physical books? What do you like most and least about e-books?  Let me know in the comments below.