The Shifted Librarian - Shifting Libraries at the speed of byte

Digital Files in Libraries

The other day, I asked if anyone really doubted that publishers would love to lock libraries out of circulating digital files. JD, Walt, and Carol left comments to that post asking for specific examples of "library files now being circulated that might one day be in jeopardy."

The problem with that question is that there really aren't any digital library files now being circulated that would be in further jeopardy. At least, not in the context in which they should be circulating. Coming at it from a public librarian-turned-patron perspective, I'm really after ebooks, audio ebooks, music, and video. Here's a list of types and examples that I can think of off the top of my head.

  • There are a few academic libraries that have some e-reserves that can be checked out by students, but the population is limited, as is the pool of materials. Unfortunately, I don't know enough about them to say how they work, but maybe someone else can chime in on this.
  • There are some libraries that circulate netLibrary ebooks, although "circulate" might be too strong a term because the library doesn't circulate the title - OCLC does. To my knowledge, the same is true with Overdrive, Libwise, and Baker & Taylor's ED service. This side of the equation is improving very slowly, in that some of these services now let patrons download titles to their laptops and PDAs, but they do it with very restrictive digital rights management that usually leaves little or no room for your fair use rights. For example, you can't grab an image to use in a school report. Consider yourself quite lucky if you can print out a couple of pages. Good luck copying text directly to paste into another document. (And we're not even talking about how little you can do if you actually bought the book yourself and own it.) In any case, the library doesn't really own the files; it's more like they're renting them. And in the case of Rocketbooks, where the library owned the hardware and the actual titles, there isn't a whole lot you can do on them if your hardware dies or if the company goes out of business. Talk about a dead end.
  • Westminster patrons can listen to classical music thanks to the Westminster Libraries, but they have to be inside one of the library's buildings, and the streams are coming from's servers, so I don't really count this one, either.
  • There are some libraries that circulate Audible MP3 audiobooks, although these circs are overwhelmingly done on hardware the library owns, not patron devices. It puts us back in the hardware dilemma, although Audible titles can at least be used on multiple devices (though each one does have to be registered with the company). Audible is working on a library server that will let patrons download titles from home, and that's where I think this needs to head, especially for multimedia.

In a digital world, libraries should be able to serve from their own catalogs the digital files they bought and own. Patrons should be able to search said catalogs and download the files for use. The content should expire at the end of the checkout period. In the movie Bull Durham, the coach tells his players that baseball is a simple game - "you throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball." In this same vein, patrons using library materials should be easy - you find the material, you check out the material, you use the material.

But with digital rights management, it's not simple. During the B&T ED demo I attended last week, at my request the rep tried to email me a page from a book he had checked out. I received it as an Adobe Acrobat PDF, but I couldn't open it. I forwarded it to another staff member who knows more about Acrobat, and she couldn't do anything with it either. The file wanted an "Adobe activation code" in order to open. We had just upgraded to Acrobat Publisher 6, so she tried using that code - no dice. Alternatively, it said she could use a Microsoft .NET Passport account, so she signed up for one. Still no dice. The next day, the Adobe code seemed to kick in on its own, except that by now the checkout period was over and the file could no longer be opened. Now, if I'd had the physical book, I could have just photocopied the page in five seconds and handed it to her. In the digital world, neither of us ever saw the page. Not simple.

And that's just ebooks. Forget the stories about college students buying etexts that expire at the end of the year. I don't know of a single library circulating a single digital music file to its patrons - do you? (That's a serious question - please let me know if you do!) And I sure don't know of any libraries circulating digital videos to patrons. Ask yourself why.

It's because publishers are scared, and the truth is that they've always been scared. If they manage to convince the tech industry and Congress to close the loopholes that let people copy and record digital files, they can't take a chance on leaving an opening for library circulation. It's like putting a hole in your firewall for one user - anyone can exploit it, thereby defeating the point of the firewall.

They don't ever say they want to lock libraries out of circulating digital files, but they also don't discuss maintaining the technical need for libraries to have a means to circulate digital files. They never even allude to it. Instead, they propose digital flags that will prevent a television or media player from playing a file the machine thinks the owner didn't purchase. Instead, they buy a Congressman to propose forcing the computer industry to build digital rights management into every piece of hardware in order to prevent anyone from using a file they don't own. They bribe Congressmen to pass laws that make criminals of anyone found guilty of sharing a digital file or even making a backup. All of which would prevent a library from circulating an electronic file to its patrons.

They don't even have library pricing models for their products because they want only to sell to the end user, "sell" being the operative word.

So I don't have an answer to JD's and Walt's questions, because in my mind we're not at that stage yet, and I worry that we'll never have the chance to step up onto it. Carol hit the nail on the head when she noted that "perhaps Fair Use is the digital loophole implied here." They're your fair use rights and our livelihood. We can't afford to lose them. Keep that in mind until you hear a publisher admit that we need to make sure libraries have a way to circulate digital files.