The swirling, chaotic ebook revolution continues to generate controversies, particularly in the library arena. An announcement from HarperCollins restricting the number of allowed loans of ebooks by libraries (via OverDrive and others) started a wave of protests in the blogosphere. The furor may have drowned out a quieter and more generous offering to libraries from the Internet Archive’s OpenLibrary. Begun in November 2007, OpenLibrary takes a wiki volunteer approach to building a mammoth catalog of all kinds of books, a catalog now numbering around 20 million entries. It also provides access to some 1.7 million full-text digitized books and documents hosted by its parent, the Internet Archive. The new In-Library eBook Lending Program will initially offer some 85,000 ebooks, many not available in the OpenLibrary itself, for perusal inside participating libraries’ physical facilities.
The list of libraries participating in the new program includes mostly public libraries, most in northern California where Internet Archive is also located. Out of state libraries include Boston Public, Allen County (Indiana), University of Florida, University of Alberta (Canada), et al. The list seems slightly padded as it lists individual branches as well as headquarters. For those interested in locating a nearby participating library, the OpenLibrary provides a map.
The 85,000 ebooks in the program include mostly 20th century items, many in-copyright. Many items are ebooks digitized by libraries themselves; this content may not already appear in OpenLibrary’s own collection. Apparently the content digitized by libraries can include rare and fragile items, e.g., family histories of genealogical interest. The new service pools this content to broaden its accessibility.
The way the program works, a library patron seeking to tap into the collection must go to a library’s physical facility where they must have an OpenLibrary account. Only one person in the library can check out an ebook at a time. I asked Brewster Kahle, founder and Digital Librarian of the Internet Archive, why, in a world where most libraries are promoting their electronic services on round-the-clock available websites, they restricted this service to walk-ins and walk-in hours. He admitted the approach did seem to go against the digital flow. For example, according to Kahle, OpenLibrary averages around 250,000 users each day. OpenLibrary’s collection of approximately 1.7 million ebooks is available freely to any web user without requiring an account. However, Kahle says they wanted to replicate the traditional library service model in designing the new initiative. One expert with whom I spoke speculated on whether potential legal difficulties of dealing with in-copyright content might have played some part in the design decisions.
Under the program, users can borrow up to five ebooks for a 2-week loan period. The ebook lending formats support laptop and tablet computers, along with library desktop computers, as well as direct browser web access. In-browser viewing uses Internet Archive’s BookReader web application. Downloading uses Adobe PDF or EPUB formats, as managed by the free Adobe Digital Editions software.
This latter is the same technology used by Google’s new eBookstore. In a sideline aspect, it’s interesting to note that, despite the early attacks on the Google Books program by Kahle, the new announcement cites Google’s commercial offering rather favorably. Kahle also told me that of the 1.7 million ebooks in OpenLibrary, some 800,000 were public domain books originally generated in the Google Books service.
In copyright though? Hmm. That can mean trouble from publishers. The original announcement tries to appeal to publishers, suggesting that the practice of loaning materials may actually encourage publishing sales. Three publishers—Cursor, OR, and SmashWords—have already begun selling ebooks to libraries for lending through the program. They will allow loans and let libraries archive their ebooks.
Libraries interested in participating in the new program should message Internet Archive at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Speaking of Publishers
Meanwhile, back in the savage reality of ebook sales, HarperCollins, a subsidiary of News Corp., started a real firefight when it announced a 26-book limit on lending for any of its ebooks. The smoke has still not died away. So, you may see a future Newsbreak from us when the situation has stabilized.
Until then, you might want to read the following:
February 25 coverage by Josh Hadro in Library Journal
OverDrive’s letter to its customers
A HarperCollins executive’s letter to libraries
A blog commentary by Eric Hellman (technologist, formerly at OCLC, Openly Informatics, and Bell Labs)
And another by Hellman
The eBook User’s Bill of Rights
Don’t forget Cindy Shamel’s coverage of another library lending initiative vulnerable to publisher approval—eBookFling