Annoyed Librarian
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Filesharing Literacy @ Your Library

A few articles about ebooks I’ve recently read have sparked my imagination about what libraries can co. This one from Tidbits and this one from the Wall Street Journal show how annoying it is to check out library ebooks via Overdrive, and since Overdrive is what a lot of public libraries are using, they show how annoying publishers are making it for libraries to transition to ebooks.

The latest hostile move of HarperCollins trying to sell libraries self-destructing ebooks  just makes the affront to libraries even worse, and also means librarians would be idiots to “buy” ebooks from HarperCollins. Maybe they should stop buying all books from them.

It all makes this article about Kindle ebook piracy make piracy much more attractive than going to the library, or even to Amazon. The article mentions an easily downloadable Torrent file with 2,500 Kindle books on it. This quote shows what both libraries and publishers have to deal with:

What a surprising number of people have told me is that they pirate stuff for the same reason that a lot of people like the Kindle: it’s all about instant gratification.

As one friend put it, “You want something, you click a button, you get it.” He has a Netflix account and knows he can get a particular movie within 36 hours delivered to his door, yet he he says sometimes uses Bit Torrent to get the movie so he can watch it faster.

Ease of access is a major motivation that librarians have long understood. Save the time of the reader, Ranganathan suggested, and now that has expanded to Save the time of the reader, viewer, or listener.

The more steps someone has to go through to check out an ebook, the less likely they’ll actually check out the book, and that’s just the way ebook publishers think they want it, because they think people check out library books they would ordinarily buy.

However, there are a lot of readers out there who want both ease of use and low cost, and they’re going to get it.

The music industry went through the same process, and their piracy problem was worse when they weren’t making digital music easily available and cheap. As iTunes has discovered, people will buy songs if they’re cheap and easy to download.

Musicians can still make money touring. Authors won’t get thousands of fans around the country to pay for author readings. So how are books to make money?

As obvious in the Amazon/Macmillan spat last year, publishers think they can make money by raising prices above the $9.99 bargain level. That might be a way to make money, but only if they make copies easily available from libraries. Some will buy the more expensive books. Some will check out library copies.

If they raise prices too much, and refuse to make affordable versions available from libraries, then piracy is only going to increase. It’s absurdly easy now to get copies of some popular books. Out of curiosity, I Googled the following: “da vinci code” pdf. I didn’t even have to bother with a Torrent file. When I tried it, there was a PDF copy openly available for download on the Internet.

Where should libraries stand on this? Obviously, librarians can’t just download illegally shared books and link them from their catalogs, though that would be pretty funny until the lawsuits started.

Nor can they advocate that library patrons engage in illegally filesharing copyrighted material. That would be wrong. Very wrong. So don’t even think about it.

However, not all filesharing is illegal. BitTorrent is a perfectly legal means to share and download all sorts of free and legal content. Perhaps libraries should make a concerted effort to teach everyone in the country how to use BitTorrent and other services. We could call it Filesharing Literacy, thus giving it a catchy title that some HOT librarians could hang a manifesto on. The ALA could start up a committee on it and make up cute posters.

Between school and public and academic librarians, we could cover a large swath of the population. The incentive to popularizing Filesharing Literacy would be the same as for regular literacy, or “information literacy,” or this new “transliteracy” mumbo-jumbo.

Libraries want to connect people with information, and there’s a lot of information buried in BitTorrent and other peer to peer filesharing networks. If someone is searching the Internet for information, they should know about peer to peer filesharing, and librarians are the perfect people to teach them about it. (And teenagers, and computer geeks, and several other groups, but they’re not as organized as librarians.)

Once people know about it, it’s only a matter of time before they’re not just downloading, but contributing content. DRM-stripped ebooks will be zipping around the Internet by the thousands. What a shame.

Publishers would scream bloody murder, of course, but who cares. Ebook publishers and Amazon and the rest have been playing the ebook game as if libraries don’t or shouldn’t exist. They want to make an enemy of librarians, so what they think isn’t important.

Libraries can get their own back by making it incredibly easy for everyone from grandma to the toddler next door to download every ebook on the planet for free, without of course advocating that they do that or showing them precisely how to download illegal content. That would be illegal. Just show them how to download the legal content, and they’ll figure out the rest by themselves.

Or librarians could offer a deal to ebook publishers and vendors. Start treating libraries like serious players in the ebook game, and stop making it so bloody annoying to check out or read your ebooks, and we’ll abandon any plans for a national Filesharing Literacy movement. It’s your choice, because the way things are going libraries don’t have much to lose. Maybe we can all go down together.



  1. AL…everyone in the library profession has been looking at this issue from a library vs. publishers perspective. Have we forgotten the role of the author? My guess is that eventually the bestselling authors are going to turn their backs on both publishers and libraries and deal directly with readers. The reality is that publishers are in as much peril as libraries.

  2. Annoyed Librarian says:

    Publishers in peril is the subject of my next post.

  3. Randal Powell says:

    I kind of like your plan AL – fire vs. fire. It’s good to see some out-of-the-box thinking regarding important library issues in these turbulent times.

    Even if your suggestion is in jest, however, there is no reason not to teach people how to use file sharing software. As you point out, file sharing – like most tools – can be used for both good and evil. Let’s just help people be as knowledgeable and capable as possible.

  4. I couldn’t agree more with will. The entire mainstream publishing industry is a ridiculous house of cards that’s limping along on the backs of a few bestsellers. When they realize how much money they’re losing because they’re not taking advantage of the direct market that’s been developing in recent years it’s going to be a major and bloody change.

  5. I hope “Publishers in Peril” has a sexy cover.

  6. rollingeyeslibrarian says:

    I like the bluntness AL, because “going down together” is what we are likely going to do precisely because we lack 1), the ability to agree on how best to respond to this and/or most things and 2) the ability to actively manage our own future together. We have always been able to find a niche’ (after the fallout), based on what we consider (with possible hubris) our own foresight to see all possible outcomes, but, without any an active plan, I think you are right. We are on our way down. I would not count on a unionization of standards where authors, known for all but their practical sensibilities, will be moving toward eliminating the middle man. The sad truth is most authors desperately need their publishers in countless respects I am sorry to say. I have yet to meet a remotely business-minded author myself. We are not in public service because the dollar is our most significant source of concern. And so is the case with authors. They want to be paid well and respected and extra income certainly doesn’t hurt. Finding the best path in the world of marketing,technological mediums and so forth creates no forward direction for all the new evolving talent we are seeing. When bibliographical content distributors deal per author collectively, I believe pigs will fly. There is simply too much for authors to learn independently without some middle source to intervene.

  7. cjlarsen says:


    The authors are already starting to publish their own ebooks – at least a few of the science fiction and fantasy authors are.

    C.J. Cherryh, Lynn Abby and Jane Fancher have banded together to create the website where they sell, as e-books, their own backlisted books (for which they have recovered the rights from the publishers). Their About page provides interesting insight into the authors’ take on the issue and also on why they have rewritten some of these books to take advantage of both writer maturity and the e-book format to further develop the ideas. I love the idea of buying a book and having the money actually go to the author.

    Cory Doctorow has a site where he has posted Little Brother for free download under a creative commons license. Little Brother won the YALSA BBYA and YALSA Outstanding Books for the College Bound (among others) in 2009 – now, it’s a free e-book. Read what Cory has to say about why, at

    I’m sure there are other authors who are directly selling or giving away their backlisted books as e-books. I just stumbled onto these. Times are already changing.


  8. rollingeyeslibrarian says:

    I was fairly sure when I wrote this there were some exceptions. I know that the publishing medium is easier than ever but I also believe there are many more authors out there than fewer who don’t know how to market effectively no matter the technology or medium. In any event, Will is right. All these changes are now evolving very quickly and my view is that, given how quick the change is occurring, we are going to be excluded as any kind of middle medium unless we take acute measures. I do believe you are correct about the long run, that young authors will change both the content and the distribution path of the market since they have successfully merged the their creative and technological mind as children but it may well not occur before we have been totally removed from consideration. Generally speaking about all of this of course, the sad part is that going straight to the public drives the price down on their work unless they already have a formidable reputation. It will take a long time for the general person to find any path to good reading. Even if how we acquire our New York Times Bestseller List is mostly distribution driven, it is what people know. While evening the playing field of authorship, this paradigm is still going to devalue most new author’s work until a truly substantial medium occurs to share reading. Most of the RA Blogs we seek out ourselves to read selectively are secondary content suggested by a distribution/publshing base. Your point is well taken and I should have said so but I just believe its going to take a long time to create all these substantial connections grand-scale. I am insulted even as people are attempting to complement me frequently by telling me I should have been a teacher. Not that I’m ashamed of the teaching profession of course as both parents were teachers. I cherish my librarian identity but already see the writing on the wall. Now instead of becoming the book warehouses that economics is forcing, we can instead become public education utilities and solely exist to help on the internet and teach computers all day.

  9. Fat and Grumpy says:

    Yes, let us embrace legal torrents and free e-books. Let us become the grassroots network supporting new or little known authors. Let us educate and promote literacy of every sort in our communities. Let us be active.

  10. elena.schneider says:

    wooo hooo AL girlfriend, let’s do some Filesharing Literacy programs together!!!

  11. Baen Books, a sci-fi and fantasy publisher, has been making money hand over fist since they started making significant portions of their catalog available as ebooks–without any DRM at all. Many of them are free; others can be purchased online, and still others are available on CD-ROMs included with the hardcover editions (with readers encouraged to copy and share the CD-ROMs). The exposure does them good. I read many of their books for free (when free was my budget); I’ve bought many in paper and electronic formats in the decade since I first found them.

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