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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Libraries Giving Books Away, or Not

A kind reader sent me this amusing article: The User-Driven Purchase Give Away Library: A Thought Experiment. It describes a glorious future, only ten years hence, in which libraries collect no physical books, and if library patrons want a book the library either gives them a digital copy for free or prints one on demand for a modest fee. I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.

Let’s take a look at some of the assumptions. My favorite might be that, “it is easy to imagine a world where all of recorded knowledge is stored and available in a digital form.” I guess it’s pretty easy to imagine that world. I close my eyes, and poof, all recorded knowledge is in digital form!

What I can’t imagine is how all that recorded knowledge is going to be digitized. Most of the time the author is talking strictly about books, but all recorded knowledge is bigger than books and journals. What about archives? What about material in foreign countries? Let’s just ignore that.

You can read the details of how libraries are going to acquire individual licenses and how every document in the world will somehow be digitized and available for use. I’ll skip to the conclusion. In ten years this model will seem “downright sensible.” Why?

Basically, the assumption is that in ten years, every book will be digitized, permanently preserved and easily available to every library in perpetuity, and that book publishers will have site licenses that allow libraries to purchase and “give away” digital copies of books to library patrons more cheaply than they could purchase and store printed books.

Does that really seem likely?

It all sounds very pretty, and it certainly shows some imagination on the part of the author. I suspect that in the technical details, he’s correct in his predictions. I believe most books that would be wanted by American libraries will be digitized in a decade, give or take a few years, and thus theoretically available. But I predict a more dystopian future, based on what’s happened with journals over the past decade or so and what’s currently happening with ebooks.

In ten years, virtually all desired books will be in digitized form. The digital content in the public domain will be readily available through Google, with backups should Google ever collapse. That’ll be lovely for the 10% of library patrons who want to read 85+ year old books.

Books still under copyright (i.e. the vast majority of what people actually want to read), will be available  digitally. The publisher-preferred model will be much like today. Individuals can pay to license access to digital files, but not own them. They will not be able to give or trade them.

As ebooks become the norm, book publishers will finally wise up and realize that far from hurting their sales, libraries are a captive market, so they create site licenses for libraries. They certainly won’t allow libraries to purchase giveaway digital licenses on the cheap. Instead, they’ll control their books through rationing, like NetLibrary or Ebrary are forced to do today. They would never make it so that it would be cheaper for people to go to libraries to get books for permanent, individual use.

Ebooks will be expensive, just like they are now. Has anyone priced a scholarly book for the Kindle? Forget that $9.99 stuff. $70 is more like it, because scholarly books are priced for libraries, not individuals.

And prices will go up instead of down, especially for the handful of major publishing houses. Once all books are available in only one format and can no longer be owned, but only licensed, book publishers will discover the joys of monopoly, just like journal publishers have! They’ll have site licenses for libraries, all right, and those licenses will be expensive.

We’ll have a situation where libraries are useful only as cash cows for publishers, and content is controlled, organized, and made available only as the publishers wish. Forget about selection, because it won’t be possible anymore. Libraries will take the packages of books on offer, or they won’t. Publishers will realize that there’s no point in pretending to sell individual books since they’re just licensing content now. They’ll be doing the selection for libraries, take it or leave it.

There will be ebook packages based on obscure categories whose main purpose is to make money. There will be “academic” and “public” packages, but with enough missing from each that libraries will have to buy both to have even remotely comprehensive collections. There will also be current files and back files and every other possible way of dividing up the available books to make the most money from them. No matter what libraries try to do, they’ll end up paying for a lot of junk they don’t want so they can get the bit they do want.

Oh, and interlibrary loan? You can forget about that. Just as you can’t ILL ebooks now, you won’t be able to legally do so in the future. Once everything is available only in digital content and by license only, why would publishers allow ILL? If a library patron wants a book, the library can purchase the book, or rather, the library can subscribe to the package that will allow the patron to temporarily view the book. Maybe they’ll be able to “rent” temporary access instead of “purchase” “permanent” access. I can just imagine the publishers chuckling over an arrangement like that.

Oh, sure, there’ll be digitized copies for preservation purposes, but no one will be able to get to them as long as the publishers still exist and are still offering copies for sale.

In this information dystopia, every book under copyright will be controlled completely and exclusively by publishers, and the traditional role librarians have played in making information more available to researchers will be eliminated. Bigger libraries will have most available books. Smaller libraries can have small packages the publishers decide would be good for their clientele.

Librarians live in a la la land where if information is digitized it thus becomes more available to people. Theoretically, that’s true. Once digitized, everyone in the world could theoretically read the same book at the same time for practically nothing.

It turns out that libraries don’t control that digitized information, though, and the more digital information there is the more it will be controlled and restrained by publishers and copyright laws and digital rights. Libraries will just be there to pay exorbitant costs for books that individuals can’t afford, the same as they now do for journals.

Librarians want to make information free. Publishers want to make information pay. Which group do you think will win?



  1. anonymous says:

    Which group do you think will win? Neither. Both. This argument has been going on since the invention of the printing press. What do you think they were arguing about in those coffee houses on Pater Noster Row?

    Market forces and consumer demand are the ultimate drivers of prices and successful business models. I see Amazon’s music downloads are now DRM-free. Didn’t think that would happen, did you?

  2. anonymous says:

    I would tend to agree with AL that it is an outlandish proposition that libraries will somehow end up printing out free copies of books; publishers and content owners will never allow that. If they do allow something of the sort, the library would be charged a fee each time a user printed a new copy (in addition to an annual fee to even have access to the work).
    New technologies allow the publishing companies to nickel-and-dime libraries (and consumers) every time they make use of a work, because these technologies and the subsequent licensing system allow them to bypass the first sale doctrine of copyright law. It is any surprise that e-readers and e-book databases do not let you share to your heart’s content? The publishers and technology are working hand-in-hand to replace the old model of the library (a collection of materials free for any to use) by replacing it with a new system (any use requires patrons and libraries to pay). Libraries will be cut out of the loop, because media will be cheap or pirated, and libraries cannot afford to pay for multiple single uses for its patrons.

  3. MrTadakichi says:

    And that’s just for books. We have all the microfilm from the local newspapers going back over a hundred years. The papers don’t want to digitize it and we can’t afford to. So what happens in this “thought experiment?” Do we just throw it out?
    And print on demand? Um, wouldn’t it be easier and cheaper to have a large printing firm print a bunch of copies and have the libraries hold onto them? You know, like we do now?

  4. Real Librarian says:

    God Bless you AL!!

    You are the voice of our profession!

  5. anonymous says:

    re: a collection of materials free for any to use<<

    Well, they aren't free. Libraries buy books, usually with taxpayer dollars. If a library buys a book for $10 and 10 people read it, taxpayers have subsidized those readers at $1.00 per person. Suppose the library never buys the book, but pays a $1.00 fee each time it's read. If 10 people read the book, same difference, same cost. Market forces will assure the overall balance just as they do now. In theory at least, libraries will be able to increase significantly the pool of resources available to their clients. Whether the books are made available through cheap print-on-demand or on loaner eReaders or downloaded to iPhones just depends on balancing costs and market demand. Think $35 tablet devices.

    What's definitely going on life-support soon is ILL. It costs less to print most books using print-on-demand than to process an ILL plus shipping both ways. ILL has been dead for journal articles for quite a while. Most libraries just do an electronic scan and email it along.

  6. ” It costs less to print most books using print-on-demand than to process an ILL plus shipping both ways”

    This assumes that you have the rights to reprint, and/or the work is digitized. How many thousands of works don’t fall into either category?

  7. Library Spinster says:

    Prints a book on demand for the patron to keep? The reason I have a library card is so that I don’t have to keep my own copy of every book I want to read.

    And are paper and ink cartridges going to be free as well in this thought experiment’s world?

  8. I Like Books says:

    I don’t think it will be as bad as the AL portrays. It could work pretty much the way a physical collection does now. For instance, the Hennepin County Library in Minnesota has digital books, bought one title at a time, available for download to devices that support the appropriate digital rights management. And it’s one title out at a time for every title purchased– if a digital title is borrowed it’s not available to be borrowed again until “returned” (or the time allotted has expired– I suppose one good thing about digital books is that it’s not possible to not return them on time).

    But digital content worries me in some ways. First, because publishers really don’t like the right of first purchase– the used book market really bugs them. I’m not actually sure what they think of libraries, but if a library buys a book and loans it out a hundred times, I know they’d rather collect a hundred fees. They’re not going to sell titles, they’re going to license them– and control them.

    Second is the centralized collection. Consider that if your university library burns down with all copies of the Philosophical Transactions journal, it is still available from other libraries all over the world, with collections going back to the 1700’s. But if the archiver of a digital collection loses its archives, or changes its business model or goes out of business and nobody is willing to fork over whatever price they ask for taking over the archive, it just goes away. When people talk about these digital collections, they’re not talking about a library PURCHASING a copy to store on their own servers for as long as they please. They’ll be available through the internet, not the intranet. Libraries wouldn’t want to purchase their own copies, anyway, because that means they’d have to handle the equipment costs. But I’d be a little more comfortable if there were thousands of duplicate digital collections laying around instead of just one.

    Third is the TRANSIENT nature of a digital collection. Digital files stored in a central server can be altered without notice. This might be as insidious as bowing to political pressures to change an unpopular opinion. Or at least unpopular with the right people. And not necessarily with gummint people– the drug cartels in Mexico are doing enough damage to the press as it is, you could imagine them telling the reporters to rewrite history or watch their families die (which is pretty much the same thing that they’re doing right now). Or it could be as innocent as updating an encyclopedia article or a manual, with earlier versions no longer available for historical researchers or people using old equipment or whatever. And customers who purchased a license can wake up one day to find it revoked. Think it won’t happen in practice?

    We’re also going to have to start worrying about whether a book is compatible with the reader we happen to have bought. And they’re pretty pricey, a big up-front cost before you can start reading, so it’s not like we can expect everyone to just buy one of all of them.

    I’m not worried about publishers going away. If they don’t get their digital rights management in order they just won’t offer their books in such an easily pirated form. But I think they’ll get their digital rights management in order.

  9. Liblarva says:

    Librarians will win once they realize that Capitalism is antithetical to the right of access to information. Mickey Mouse Copyright Laws are also antithetical to the freedom to access information.

    I know you’re not big on the ALA but the Code of Ethics is stymied by both Capitalism and Mickey Mouse Copyright Laws. Specifically, intellectual freedom and equitable access. Article 4 directly contradicts and hinders the previous three Articles.

    Once we, as a profession, pick a side on that issue (the corporations or the people) that will decide who wins.

  10. Let us look at the printing out a copy of the book.

    I am going to make some assumptions on this.

    Assuming that you can fit 1.5 pages on a 8×11 standard sheet of paper and that you have a duplexing printer, then you can fit 3 pages per book on front and back of a sheet of paper.

    Assuming that the book in question has 600 pages, then you would need 200 sheets of paper to print it out.

    Figures are for a high end Xerox Phaser 8560, which has one of the cheaper costs per page.
    Cost per piece of paper = .005
    Cost to print in B&W per page face = .015

    We arrive at the cost to print out a copy of said book as $7.00.

    Keep in mind, that most libraries do not have a high end printer such as this and that the lower end typically has a cost of around .03 per page which would bring the same book in at $14.00 to print.

    I seriously doubt that printing them out a reasonable fee will ever come about.

    I used a recent hard cover non-fiction book that sells for 28.95 (pre-processed) at Ingram with my library’s discount as the example, so even if you only print out 5 copies of the book, it would still be cheaper in the long run to purchase a physical copy.

    Now digital, if the rights could be worked out, is a different story.

  11. Copyright is a B****, isn’t it? ;P

  12. “ILL has been dead for journal articles for quite a while. Most libraries just do an electronic scan and email it along.”

    Well, yes, libraries scan journal articles to send via email, but this is, in fact, done through ILL if it is done legally. ILL offices take care of the copyright tracking and payments involved. If your library is just scanning and sending articles, your staff is unaware of the law or openly flouting it.

  13. “I see Amazon’s music downloads are now DRM-free.”

    Only because, in this realm, Amazon came in as a small dog barking at iTunes. And they’re only DRM-free, they’re not DR-free: it’s still illegal to transfer them to another party.

    Unless another power player wants to break into the ebook market, there’s no reason for anyone to start a push for DRM-free ebooks. And with all the major players already vested to one extent or another, there aren’t a lot of candidates.

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