Jonathan Rochkind says that
“Libraries can offer ebooks, unlike print books, only at the sufferance of publishers, and publishers may charge whatever they like for this ‘privilege’. Publishers, not liking the idea of libraries much, are not providing that permission in some cases, and are providing pricing models in other cases which make it much more expensive for a library to offer an ebook than a print book. If reader preferences continue to shift to ebooks as we expect, we may very well see the end of libraries as book lending institutions. (That’s of course not all a library does, and they may continue in other roles). Not because patrons don’t want to borrow ebooks from a library same as they did print ebooks, not because libraries don’t want to loan ebooks or can’t figure out the technology, but because publishers simply don’t want it to happen, and our laws give them the right to prevent it.”
The Overdrive program for libraries is a bad deal, no doubt (though it’s the only access that many libraries have to a wide selection of licensed content), but I think this ascribes too many negative motives and tactics to publishers. In all the discussions I’ve witnessed (either in publications or firsthand), publishers are much more bewildered than anything else. Many have seen a lot of their existing marketing channels evaporate (bookstores closing) or be supplanted (Amazon), and some authors and their agents are sidestepping them completely. Understandably, it is hard for them to embrace any big move to ebooks right now, especially since that they don’t understand the new stuff as well as technology companies do. It’s a bit like the financial collapse, when banks were afraid to lend money until things bottomed-out.
For libraries, the key to navigating this difficult moment is not to rely on publishers to help them for direction or access to new technology. Eventually, the “walled gardens” that companies like Amazon have erected around published books will be dismantled, so libraries and librarians should make their plans for that world, not the present. It might be necessary to purchase some amount of proprietary Amazon hardware and license content through Overdrive as a stopgap measure, but that’s all it is. Some hero librarians have already started to push back against this deal, because “…it is irresponsible to spend tax dollars on material that evaporates or disappears at the end of a certain period of time” (it’s sad, but no technology startup would sign up for such a deal). Libraries can be centers for expert online curation of the best resources available via print, digital, or social networks. They can be a site for patrons to contribute their own information-gathering to a repository maintained by paid editors of good research, connoisseurs of materials: librarians. These are not airy predictions, but exactly what many groups (e.g. Wikipedia and Google, along with ersatz corporate library efforts like JSTOR or HathiTrust) are already doing outside the library world (aside from great but lonely examples like the Open Library).
For publishers, the future is not to be found in building barriers around their works, and small experiments while waiting for things to settle down will only result in companies that are willing to make big bets (or even medium-size bets) controlling access to readers.
Libraries and publishers could be the facilitators of a new world of engagement with reading and creating, especially if they acted together. The present grim ménage a content shouldn’t distract from the opportunities available.