Digital Libraries

December 28, 2016 Off By Elaine Arias


If you’re lucky enough, your county’s library system might have a “digital library” or a website where you can check out eBooks (usually with DRM applied).  I have a library card from my previous residence (on the West Coast), and that county library uses Over Drive.  My local library has a digital library but they use something else (someone stole my local library card, amongst my other things, grrr).

So, since I no longer have my local library card, I’ve been poking around at the Over Drive site for my former county of residence, and I wanted to talk about something that’s been bothering me for a long time.  Almost all of the books, save for classics, have DRM.  Those limitations are very steep.  Only one person can check out a book at a time, never mind the fact that the average ePub or MOBI file is about 300 KB.  It wouldn’t be a huge bandwidth drain to let several patrons check out a book simultaneously.

The reason for this is copyright law.  The library has to purchase a license for a given title, and that license is only good for a certain number of checkouts.  Then they have to purchase it again.

I found an blog post called “Why borrowing an eBook from your library is so difficult” that explains the wretched situation:

Once you get past the technical hoops of connecting your library to your e-reader, you’ll figure out fast that publishers have decided to force libraries to treat e-books like paper books, so only one person can check them out at a time. The library can only check out as many copies of an e-book as they’ve purchased or licensed from publishers. Seems like an antiquated way of going about things, right? It gets worse.

Publishers also decided that since e-books don’t wear out the way paper books do, they need to put limits on how many times a title can be lent before the library has to buy a new copy. For some publishers, the e-book “wears out” after 26 uses. Other publishers put a time limit on it, allowing a library to loan an e-book for a year before having to renew what amounts to a license fee. The publishers that still allow libraries to buy an e-book and loan it out forever without restrictions often charge a very high price for each book.

Note:  the blog post is from 2013, but is still pretty relevant.  This, of course, is the publishers’ fault.  They’re greedy and they think this kind of crap will prevent piracy (hint:  it does not.  At all.  Trust me, I know).

What astonishes me is that there are some people (mostly on Mobileread) who actually defend this practice!  They’re all, “but, it’s a library.  It only makes sense.  I mean, more than one person cannot check out the same hardcover copy of a book!”

No, it’s not the same!  We’re talking about a small digital file that can be anywhere from 300 KB to 2 MB!  It doesn’t take a whole lot to host such files, and it doesn’t take a whole lot to allow people to download the files!  Even simultaneously!  The whole point of ePub and MOBI files (and PDFs, of which tend to be larger and are only really any good on a desktop PC or a ten inch tablet like an iPad) is that they are small and cheap to reproduce!  One hundred people could easily check out a copy of, I dunno, My Awesome Book by Jane Doe simply because the technology makes it possible to do so.  eBook libraries should be the future, and yet they are not because the publishing industry is completely greedy and unwilling to change.

So I’m looking at the library on Tuesday – New Release Tuesday – and I would have no chance of checking out a new release because some other patron has already checked it out, even though, technically, it can be done even with DRM restrictions on the file (of which can still limit the amount of time I can actually read the file, depending on my account settings).

A waiting list for a digital file that can easily be replicated is just absurd.  It’s antiquated and completely ridiculous.