Bits from the Digital Editor: The Library and the Digital Age

by Jessica Mifsud

Published at 2013-06-25


Based on our last few chats, it's pretty clear that the Digital Age of Books is well upon us. What that doesn't mean, though, is that the Digital Age has figured itself out yet. Plenty of issues still remain unresolved — questions like who owns which rights to what version of a given book, whether self-published authors are any better off than their industry-aided counterparts, and who really has the authority to set price points for eBooks are troubling the industry every day.


If these questions are too big-picture, one excellent example of the confusion brought on by the Digital Age can be found at your local library. Like anyone else whose interest lies in books, most library systems have adopted an eBook lending program to complement their print-book services. Using a program called OverDrive, library patrons can now borrow digital files from their local branch and read them on their eReader of choice. Or, at least, that's the ideal situation. As with anything else, there are exceptions to, and problems generated by, the rule.

(Almost) Any Device Will Do!


The Toronto Public Library's website is extremely helpful when it comes to explaining the details of how their eBook borrowing system works, and how you can set up your own eReading device with the OverDrive program to read files that you borrow. But here's the catch: if you're hoping to borrow from a Canadian library, your eReader better not be a Kindle, or you're out of luck.


You may have seen media expressing that Kindle has recently (read: 2011) been made compatible with OverDrive, but as the TPL states over and over to Kindle users on this page, that's just in the USA. Due to differences between Canadian and American publishing laws, OverDrive in Canada doesn't support Kindle files, and that's the long and short of it. Whether or not OverDrive works with Kindle in the USA, or even if you bought your Kindle in the United States, it just won't work the same way in Canada.


OverDrive will, however, support just about any device you can name that can read ePub files, which is great news for the rest of us.



eBook Files Expire?

The second catch to library borrowing — and the one that confuses most people — has to do with the borrowing conditions surrounding eBook files, which are, in brief, as follows: 


  • There is a 15-title limit to how many eBooks you can have out at one time.
  • You can't keep them forever — eBooks have borrowing times of one, two, or three weeks, and the length of time for each book is set when you check them out.
  • When the borrowing time is up, the eBooks are automatically returned to the library system by OverDrive, whether you've read them or not. (Upside: no more late fees!)


This may not seem to make a lot of sense. After all, an eBook is just a file, and like any other file, you should be able to make as many copies as you want, keep them for as long as you need to, and lend them to as many people as are requesting copies at any given time. Right?


But if you think these rules are complicated for you, they're even stranger for the library. Since every book lent out via the OverDrive program is protected by DRM, the library can't just make copies of that new bestseller for everyone. In fact, according to this article from December 2012, some publishers won't even allow their eBooks to be lent out by libraries, possibly for fear of hurting sales elsewhere.


For example, the Hachette Book Group, who publishes authors like David Sedaris, James Patterson, and Ian Rankin, only signed on to release their books through OverDrive last month. Other companies, like HarperCollins, limit the number of times a book can be lent out by the library before it needs to be repurchased, even though it's not like an ePub file is going to become dog-eared, yellow, and have its cover fall off.


What's clear is that though the library has modernized their lending rules to accommodate eBooks, some publishers are still trying to cling to the idea that all books should function like print books, even if they aren't printed, and that's not doing anything but confusing book readers.


The Future of OverDrive

In light of all this, it should come as no surprise that OverDrive is demonstrating their new eBook Sales Kiosk this year at Book Expo America. The kiosk is supposed to be designed for placement in bookstores and libraries, can have its content customized depending on its location, and will allow patrons to browse and buy their eBooks from the kiosk, instead of at home on their computers.


This big idea is supposed to be the vehicle to let bricks-and-mortar book establishments get in on their share of the eBook-selling action, and presumably also creates a way for vendors to sidle their way into the library environment. Which, assuming that library patrons aren't extremely offended by a store in their midst, is all fine and well. Voracious book readers might be pleased that they don't have to spend as much time at the computer, and can instead spend more time around books.


But what this innovation isn't doing is helping the average confused library patron become less befuddled by the technology they already have access to. Adding more complications to the problems of the Digital Age isn't going to help anyone's complaints. Maybe that would be a better place to start.