By David Rothman
OverDrive recently got the big “get” of the library e-book world, the Harry Potter series. This Cleveland-based distribution service now offers J. K. Rowling’s darlings in text and digital audio to thousands of libraries and schools. No surprise. OverDrive’s people can work parties, trade shows and contract negotiations with the finesse of true wizards.
Do we want OverDrive, however, as American’s national digital library system for our public schools and public libraries, in effect? Remember, the national digital library issue to a great extent is really a K-12 and jobs one in disguise.
With the national interest in mind, U.S. public libraries should buy OverDrive with the help of a philanthropist or group of benefactors. Hello Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Jobs’ family, Larry Ellison, Ross Perot and the like? Wallets ready? The possibility begs for discussion.
OverDrive is gearing up for expansion via a new $5-million-dollar-plus “world headquarters” with 300 employees expected in time, some 95,000 square feet, a 12-acre campus, a pond and two indoor basket courts. Shouldn’t librarians have a voice in such spending decisions, which could influence content costs? Or should they tolerate what could become de facto privatization and perhaps eventually get cut out altogether?
For now, OverDrive is the King Kong of the public library ebook market, serving “more than 15,000 libraries, schools, and colleges worldwide.” Despite all the news coverage about Google’s millions of classics, most public library patrons strongly prefer contemporary commercial books, OverDrive’s main strength, and in the wake of the success of Kindles and iPads, OverDrive and rivals are rapidly increasing their hold on the public library market.
Get set for more of the same if libraries don’t buy OverDrive: increasing reliance on infrastructure from the private side. When a U.S. public-library patron requests an ebook, it commonly zips over the wires from an OverDrive server via a link from the local library’s ebook section created with the company’s help, or else OverDrive points them to the corporation’s partners at Amazon.
So what would be the benefit of libraries buying out OverDrive directly, or of a library-oriented nonprofit doing the same?
- Continuity, given OverDrive’s prominence on the public library scene. Steve Potash and associates could stay on as advisors to help effect a smooth transition – and the continuation of contracts with publishers. Like it or not, personal connections count in big-time publishing. Without Potash and crew, a national digital library system might actually be riskier, in terms of content choices. They are hardly infallible but stand more of a chance than latecomers who know copyright law, but not the right people – at least not to the extent OverDrive does. The less risk, the better the funding possibilities. Furthermore, OverDrive is already in touch with popular tastes, a “must.” Notice how badly OCLC bungled with NetLibrary in this respect and others? Without OverDrive to help public librarians balance out high-brow academics, a national digital library initiative might repeat OCLC’s debacle. To promote full-strength mass literacy and upper-level culture – both essential! – a digital public library system needs all kinds of people.
- Modernization of OverDrive to take better advantage of such new technologies as cloud computing (with offline reading options) and make it more interactive and better integrated with libraries’ collections. In the future, library-stable links could boost networked books.
- Reduction of middleman costs. For budget reasons or others, a dismaying 39 percent of U.S. libraries don’t offer downloadable ebooks.
- Less complicated use of new business models, allowing libraries to buy up unrestricted usage rights from consenting writers and publishers – even though old models could remain as well.
- More clout with e-library-unfriendly publishers than OverDrive now enjoys. Libraries buy their share of paper books and, beyond that, they could hire editors and create their own polished content – with detailed, localized marketing information. OverDrive’s sophisticated marketing and PR sides could help popularize gems from libraries and museums as well as the commercial variety.
- More financial-transparency and, obviously, more say by librarians over policies and practices.
With competition growing in the ebook business, some powerful business reasons exist for OverDrive to sell itself to libraries if the rewards are sufficient. The more widely people discuss the possible OverDrive purchase, the more attractive it might become for potential angels – along with related donations for the collection and infrastructure and staffing.
As for ongoing revenue, much of it could come from fees that libraries are already accustomed to paying OverDrive, as well as from subscription fees payable via federal tax-form checkoffs, with aid available for low-income people.
Following a recent governance workshop for the Digital Public Library of America held at the National Archives in Washington, National Archivist David S. Ferriero graciously gave us a memorable private tour of a vault area containing papers from George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and other immortals as well as a check for the purchase of Alaska. Right there, amid all the tangible history before my eyes, I couldn’t help but think the inevitable. If we can acquire Alaska from the tsar, why can’t our libraries buy OverDrive?
David H. Rothman (firstname.lastname@example.org), an editor-writer in Alexandria, VA, runs LibraryCity.org and founded the TeleRead e-books site. Opinion pieces for Backtalk should be 850-900 words and submitted to Michael Kelley (email@example.com)