e-Readers were among the most popular holiday gifts in 2010, and the new e-reader owners are mostly delighted with their devices. There are indications that owning an e-reader significantly increases the amount of time spent reading for pleasure, and the purchase of e-editions of books spiked during January. This has been very good news for the bottom lines of e-book sellers like Amazon.
Amazon was the first, and so far the most successful, entrant into the e-reader competition. Many people use the term “Kindle” generically to mean e-reader. As a life-long reader, I am pleased with the new opportunities provided by the explosion of devices and content. But as a library director I am deeply concerned that the direction that we seem to be headed is exacerbating the “digital divide.”
That is because libraries and the needs of library users are not on the radar of the makers of e-readers. This is most explicitly true of Amazon, whose Kindles use a proprietary format for e-content rather than the more open epub format. Make no mistake; Amazon developed the Kindle as a way to sell e-books. They are targeting a Kindle owner who is older, well educated, and relatively affluent, and is more than willing to pay for the convenience of instant delivery of desired content. The typical library user is not a member of this demographic group. Many rely upon libraries for free access to content that they could not otherwise afford. This traditional role of libraries as the preserver of access to information for all individuals is already threatened by municipal funding cuts to library budgets, and now stands to be further eroded by the business plans of producers of e-readers, and publishers of e-content.
Most libraries that “loan” e-content do so by purchasing content through Overdrive. Library users who have their own devices (the device must use the epub format, which disqualifies Kindles) can “borrow” e-books through the Overdrive account of their library, from the comfort of their own home. In practice, learning how to install and use the required software (both Overdrive and Adobe Digital Editions) often brings these users into libraries for help and instruction. Further, the restrictions on borrowing are counter-intuitive and onerous. As is the case with a physical book, only one person may “borrow” each e-book at a time. But unlike the case with a physical book, when your borrowing period is up, the content literally vanishes. No renewal is possible, nor can a borrower who is not quite finished elect to pay a late fee for the privilege of finishing the book. Finally, demand is high and most library Overdrive collections are very limited. Consequently, there is frequently a long wait for a desired title, and there is always the chance that the book will become available at a time that is inconvenient for the user. These barriers combine to make the e-books borrowing experience difficult and frustrating.
As if that weren’t enough, Harper Collins has become the first major publisher to impose additional contract restrictions on Overdrive. Henceforth, Harper Collins titles may only be circulated 26 times before they must be re-purchased. (This is about 1 year worth of circulations.) No such restrictions attend to physical books. Libraries that purchase copies of Harper Collins titles in print may circulate them as long as they last. To arbitrarily impose a limit of 26 circulations absolutely undercuts the ability of libraries to loan e-books.
All of these barriers point to a troubling trend. Libraries are struggling to serve individuals who can afford an e-reader, but need to borrow the content. It is much more difficult to serve individuals who can afford neither the device nor the content. But the stakes are very high. If libraries do not band together to negotiate fair terms for all players in the new age of e-books, a great percentage of library patrons will be left on the wrong side of the digital divide.