I have many reasons to distrust digital books. The moves to restrict library lending and control patron usage are high on the list:

Just to be clear, this means that eBook ownership now expires after a set number of uses. Libraries no longer “own” the rights to the purchased titles for perpetuity. This is a radical change in library collection development and removes the thin veneer remaining of our ability to act as preservation entities for digital content. How could you even put this content in your catalog? You’d have to track circulation and then remove the title from your catalog once you hit your cap. Can you imagine the workload impact? This creates a dangerous precedent that other publishers are likely to want to follow. This change, yet again, creates another dividing line between how the same title is treated differently in print and in digital format.

That dividing line is expected to disappear the moment publishers and ebook vendors do away with the production of physical books altogether. They have been pipe-dreaming that brave new paperless world since the mid-90s, but now they think they have the means — thanks to the popularity of iPads, Nooks, Kindles, etc. — to distribute eBooks widely to a reliable readership. One of the library systems I work for already anticipates libraries becoming eBook distribution sites stocked with computer terminals, as physical books occupy significantly less space on the floor, and has begun transforming its service model accordingly. This is not a remote future vision, by the by; more like by the end of the decade.

Look, I try not to get all Get Off My Lawn about this shit, but it is this kind of proprietary authoritarianism rationalized by fundamentalist libertarian worship of capitalist property rights that makes me extremely wary of these moves toward digital book distribution. When Amazon blithely erased copies of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from customers’ Kindles, that was a huge blinking sign that eBook distributors look at inventory control in a very different light from traditional booksellers. If I buy an unauthorized copy of a book, no one’s gonna bust into my house and take it off my shelf and leave a reimbursement on my table. No such sense of “boundaries” exist in the culture of these people. So now they want fine-grained control of digital book lending based on patron locality, usage stats, and expiration dates. That puts them on the same data-mining page as Google and Facebook.

The Librarian in Black quoted above has a kinder, gentler vision of libraries lending digital books to patrons, a model where publisher copyrights are respected, but so are library ownership rights and patron accessibility rights. Much like today’s model: library buys book, owns that copy, lends it out to patron. But today’s model has a built-in mechanism of obsolescence.  The physical copy of the book eventually wears out, or the patron drops it in the bathtub, so the library buys a new copy. Sometimes libraries buy hundreds of copies of a single book to meet patron demand (Harry Potter, for obvious example), making authors and publishers and distributors happy to sell to a reliable customer.

But how do you drop an eBook in the bathtub? Sure, you can drop a Kindle, but that’s the patron’s problem. The digital file itself still exists in the ebrary. The subscribing library doesn’t have to replace it. You’d think the annual subscription fees to the ebrary would be enough for distributors and publishers, right? Wrong. It’s never enough. That’s the logic of capitalism. When computers offer companies the ability to exploit data at the binary level, they would be crazy to not try it.

Mind you, the LIB is right about one thing: these totalitarian efforts by publishers and distributors alienate customers by frustrating them, complicating their access, and overburdening libraries; they are not good long term business thinking. It’s short-term, quick-profit investor thinking. But I ask you: which mentality has been the dominant mode of capitalists in the last thirty years? Which will be dominant for the foreseeable future?

To be clear: I don’t fear the technology. It’s the crazy ape splitting the atom who worries me.

UPDATE: Just stumbled upon this opinion piece by a librarian in England, where libraries are under fiscal and ideological attack. She is answering a “who needs ’em” op-ed inanity by some smug Early Adopter:

Last Monday, almost 500 people visited the library. Few could afford a Kindle but they borrowed plenty of books. One pensioner paid a small fee for an inter-library loan to obtain two out-of-print books – neither available for download. It is not “an era of universal broadband”, as Preston suggests. Some 30% of the population do not have internet access at home. When he says, “we might subsidise cheap access centres in coffee bars or schools” – well, we can continue to subsidise access by saving public libraries. Our 15 library computers with internet access were busy all day – used by pensioners, poor people, students, schoolchildren, the unemployed, foreign workers.

You may notice I talk a lot about class warfare on this blog. When the elite shits stop waging it, I’ll stop talking about it. Meanwhile, go read the rest of this article. Great stuff.

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