Having used Yale library for the past four years, I’ve come to accept as fact that the wonderful invention of the e-Book allows all library users to bypass the logistical obstacles that accompany the borrowing of physical books – unavailability when checked out by others, the trip of physically finding and retrieving the title from its shelf, the revulsion of thumbing through dilapidated volumes with unidentifiable stains. More than once, I’ve taken Yale classes in which professors have assigned books that are available online from the Yale library. The strategy for those readings has always been to click on the link whenever I want, at my own pace and timing. The only “hassles” were perhaps that the pages cannot be printed, and that some versions do not allow electronic markings or highlights. Small price to pay for the convenience offered.
Interestingly, and much to my dismay, this universal access model to library e-Books does not extend much farther beyond the university setting. Although e-Books are not yet widespread among public libraries, the ones they do occupy maintain heavy restrictions on usage, as if these electronic files were physical objects.
Take the New York Public Library as a case study. Although the library has 100 titles in e-Book format, it offers them in very limited quantities. For example, currently there are just two e-copies of Blackveil (published Feb. 2011). Both are unavailable, with two “patrons” on each waiting list. The older, but more popular Artemis Fowl (published Aug. 2009) is even more scarce; there is just one currently unavailable copy, with eight on the waiting list.
Perhaps even more ludicrous are the policies on checkout and return. There are no standard lending periods, as these can vary from title to title depending on individual licensing agreements. Furthermore, two of the three provided e-Book formats (OverDrive and Mobipocket) “cannot be returned early. They are automatically returned at the end of the lending period.” So assuming that Artemis Fowl has the standard library lending period of three weeks, I’d have to wait until September 2011 for three weeks of access to a PDF copy? What???
Oh wait… I just got it here.
Granted, this version is in a much plainer font, and there are no page numbers. But the content is exactly the same. How did I find this? By Googling “artemis fowl pdf” and clicking the third search result. Clearly, DRM is not serving its purpose. Is it really necessary to ensure that libraries abide by DRM for their e-Books when cases of circumvention abound so prolifically on the Internet?
Functionality aside, the more important question is whether DRM has a place in the public library domain. The whole point of libraries is to offer communities a local learning center for free. Specifically, the New York Public Library aims to “inspire lifelong learning, advance knowledge, and strengthen our communities.” The digitization of books should, if anything, only help accelerate this mission of educating the community. Why, then, is the new medium of communication being subject to the same delivery constraints of old media? Why, when electronic files can be accessed instantaneously and multilaterally, should people have to wait for months to take their turn?
Library e-Books belong in their own category, separate from print books, and they deserve their own lending policy – one that makes use of the advantages that they offer in speed and plurality of transmission. The Yale model of universal access isn’t necessarily ideal for all public libraries, but the old print model of lending for e-Books simply needs to go.