As devices like the Kindle, Nook, and iPad become more prevalent, a lot of libraries are showing interest.
One problem is that eBooks are following the Digital Restrictions Management* trend, which cripples content so that it will only play for approved purchasers. The goal is to limit “piracy,” such as someone buying a piece of media and passing it along to all of their friends when they were done. It’s always seemed to me that the goal of DRM was antithetical to that of libraries. That said, there has been a big backlash against DRM, both because it treats people as criminals and because it sometimes doesn’t work and denies the people who actually bought content in the first place the right to use it. Some instances of DRM going awry would make Orwell roll over in his grave: Sony installed rootkits (for all intents and purposes, a virus that buried itself deep in Windows) on audio CDs until it got caught (and subsequently reamed), and Amazon, seemingly oblivious to the enormous irony, wirelessly deleted Orwell’s Animal Farm from the Kindles of those who bought it, after it was found that the people selling the book didn’t have the legal right to distribute it.
That said, eBooks and libraries aren’t totally foreign. A ZDNet article talks about about Sony’s Overdrive program, which, among other things, permits libraries to lend copies of eBooks, though support is unclear.
A question on TechDirt asks if libraries are legally permitted to lend out pre-filled Kindles. The answer, apparently, is that Amazon says it is not allowed, but that they don’t seem to have sued anyone who’s done so yet. That said, I think this question is missing the point. Lending Kindles is silly: it would be like lending VCRs and DVD players. If a library were to lend everyone a Kindle instead of books, it would do little but drive costs up tremendously. The way I see it, people would own e-book readers, and the library would just lend them the e-book they wanted to read. (Plus, if someone checks out a paperback and skips town, it’s not really a big deal. If someone checks out a Kindle and never brings it back, it’s a big loss.)
On top of all of this, I’m also a bit concerned about the role of brick-and-mortar libraries in all of this. If all the library would do would be to give its patrons access to the digital files to put on their e-book readers, why is a library needed at all? You’d just need a server somewhere to host the books and allow wireless downloads. I’m not positing that libraries are anywhere near obsolete, just that Utopian visions of an all-digital society seem to render them obsolete. Of course, that Utopian vision seems somewhat dystopian to those of us who, even with lots of technology, rather enjoy reading off of dead tree pulp, or those of us who see libraries as more than a warehouse of books. But libraries need to make sure that their pursuit of high-tech actually serves their patrons’ best interests, and isn’t just random purchasing of expensive devices that don’t offer any advantage over conventional books.
* Full disclosure: DRM officially stands for Digital Rights Management, but my rights come from the Fair Use doctrine and cannot be “managed,” only restricted. The goal of DRM is to set up and manage restrictions, not rights. It would be like putting handcuffs on someone and claiming that you’re doing it to manage their freedom.
** While discussing this recently, someone asked me, “When was the last time you read an actual book?” I smiled, as I was able to reply, “A couple days ago.” Flabbergasted, they replied, “But you have an iPhone!”