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The Story of Ebook Lending (1)
This is my modified research paper for LIS 688 (Special Collections) at UNCG. In my current class, LIS 643, I'm learning about the importance of metadata in the digitized "universal library."
I decided to use the professor’s helpful advice to improve and modify it. This article is ONE of TWO articles. This part, Part ONE, is: INTRODUCTION, BACKGROUND & DISCUSSION, and HISTORY. This is not a final draft. I guess it’s a second draft, but there will be many drafts before there is ever a final draft, so you probably don’t want to hold your breath for the finished product. If you want to help me stay caffeinated as I work on this, consider buying me a coffee: https://ko-fi.com/heavycrownpress.
As a library student, when I think about ebook lending, I naturally start trying to wrap my head around copyright law. Much has been written about the delicate balance between respecting intellectual property rights and serving patrons the books they want to read when they want to read them. Yet I’m also curious about the history of books, in general, through the lens of the historian. I want to look specifically at the evolution of the lending library and then to analyze the emergence and trajectory of the ebook. This will give us insight into how copyrights have been respected in the past, and how ebooks conform to that tradition or depart from it. “Everything we know about books is going to change,” wrote Kevin Kelly in the New York Times Magazine, and it’s true that ebooks have changed the landscape of book lending. Kelly wrote his article in 2006, a time when he and many others looked with awe toward a future overflowing with digitized knowledge. At the time, Google was revolutionizing the academic world by scanning books for major research institutions around the country. They started with just five research libraries at the end of 2004. At the same time, Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, was laying the groundwork for his own, even more sweeping vision of, as he put it, “providing all the works of humankind to all the world.” (Kelly, 2006, p.44).Kahle, though, was no fan of Google’s strategy. He thought Google didn’t go far enough. The snippet views in a Google Book Search, he argued, were just Alphabet’s way of “tiptoeing” (Junegoldsmith, 2006b, 1:56) around copyright laws. Of course a for-profit corporation like Google’s parent company was never going to approach digitization in the same altruistic way as a non-profit like the Internet Archive or HathiTrust. Nevertheless, litigation is not really the point of this paper, although the laws are critical to the landscape of ebook lending and how it has developed. As we look for clues to success in this area, it is worth looking at the long history of book lending institutions. Far from diminishing the sales of books or eviscerating their economic value, lending libraries have spurred demand and kept the wider public engaged and interested in reading. Everyone in a society benefits when more people are reading books. Libraries, too, add the wonder of social stimulation to the experience of learning and reading books.
The law, though, treats the ebook quite differently than it treats the world of print. The courts in the United States have upheld the notion that ebooks are software. They are equated to computer programs and video games. Yet ebooks can be treated and experienced in the same way as print books. Ideally, we should strive to learn the lessons and emulate the successes of the past (and present) in order to make our digital evolution work for everyone—publishers, creators, and readers alike. We have to accept the complex nature of the ebook. An ebook has a “complicated ontology,” indeed!We must thoroughly comprehend the complex nature of the ebook in order to optimize ebook lending as successfully as we have always optimized print book lending.
BACKGROUND & DISCUSSION
Brewster Kahle gave a talk in Michigan, warning of the fading dream of the “great library” (Junegoldsmith, 2006a, 5:21) or, in other words, the digital world’s version of the ancient world’s Great Library at Alexandria. This talk was held at the University of Michigan for the John Seely Brown Symposium and, as the keynote speaker, Kahle took his audience back through the history of libraries–or rather, his own lived experience of public libraries in America. He took them on a verbal journey through card catalogs, the Interlibrary Loan, and at last to the most convenient learning tool of them all—the downloadable ebook. Convenience is, after all, a new and modern layer to the dream of the universal online library. We can download a book from the comfort of home. We don’t have to go anywhere. We don’t need a librarian to do an InterLibrary Loan—that trusted protocol for getting books from other institutions. We can go to Project Gutenberg and download the EPUB file for virtually any public domain work. But what if it’s not in the public domain? What if it is a copyrighted work? Or what if it is copyrighted, out of print, and difficult to find, but too obscure to be thought worth the effort of digitizing? That’s where the library comes in. It’s no different, as Kahle points out, or it should be no different than it ever was for print books. The library buys a copy, they loan it to you, and you return it—hopefully on time. It’s true that ebooks work on the same principle, and truthfully, the convenience (and pocket book) are enhanced by a total win-win situation in which no ebook is ever late and not one dime is ever due because ebook access and return is an automated process. By downloading one free app onto one’s smartphone, whether it’s Overdrive or Libby, library patrons have what feels like an endless array of reading at their fingertips.
But digitizing books is expensive. As we will see later on, even the profit corporations have to make tough decisions about what to scan. For a public library, multiple copies of popular works of fiction are optimal, but a niche grimoire from the 19th century is likely to be of value in a very particular type of special collection. This raises questions of supply and demand, how many “hits” a search term has, etc.
The circulating libraries of Jane Austen’s world had to charge a subscription fee to stay in business, and it was only worth it to subscribe to a library that effectively catered to the demands of the membership. Back in those days, the exquisitely bound copies of the gothic novels of Mrs. Radcliffe were much sought-after but very much beyond the reach of the majority. A lending library, though, might be able to gets it hands on a copy or two. Today, the lending library must pay for modern conveniences which a lot of us have grown to take for granted: things like the online discovery tool EBSCO and newspaper archives. Patrons want access to things like Ancestry.com, the Rolls Royce of the genealogical web. At public libraries, we do, of course, pay for these services; the money, though, comes from taxes instead of the more direct subscription fee. The more we come to rely on these amenities, the more we come to expect them.
Modern usage of libraries is so multilayered and so much more complicated than the circulating libraries of Jane Austen’s era. We’ve evolved from book lending institutions to multimedia lending institutions that have both physical and digital spaces. The physical spaces alone are places of thriving, multidimensional activities. As Donald Barclay notes, public libraries are some of the few remaining public spaces where you can remain from open to closing without a particular reason to do so, without even spending money. (Barclay, 2017, p.267).You can go to a library and just sit in a chair with your laptop. Unlike at Starbucks, no one will look at you askance for not buying coffee. Just because the public library also offers a digital space and apps with quick and easy ebook borrowing does not change the all-too-common appeal of rows and rows of print books. Nor does it take away, even in 2022, the desire, if only nostalgic, (Scott, 2017) to go to a building and check out a DVD. In a documentary called The Last Blockbuster (2020) we see all too clearly that, while streaming services now dominate home entertainment, there are places in the world where WiFi is not good; in such far corners of the earth, people will still make use of DVD players and inexpensive or free rentals.
While Blockbuster is down to one store in the entire world, there are plenty of libraries continuing to provide all of this, and more. As Nafiz Zaman Shuva and Rachel Scott both point out, modern public libraries are not just book repositories. They are access points to essential services. (Shuva, 2022.)They are, in truth, community centers, offering an endless amount of services indispensable from daily life. We can call Twitter the new public square, and while Twitter is a great tool for libraries to get the word out, we don’t look to Twitter to make important decisions for daily survival, such as where to live. Libraries are in some ways the sign post for a community. The library says a lot about the schools and the businesses in a neighborhood. Scott goes so far as to call the library the “fabric of our society.” (Scott, 2017, p.192). According to the American Library Association, the first decade of the internet (1994-2004) saw a 61% increase in visits to public libraries. (Scott, 2017, p.193). At the library, we learn about what’s going on in the area. That incentivizes businesses to target communities with a thriving library. (Scott, 2017, p.193).
Of course, even Kahle concedes that a lot of library activity increasingly centers around the computer—whether it’s a library-owned terminal or a patron’s laptop, iPad, iPhone, or Apple Watch. The computer, too, can be a stand-in for the reference librarian. Just like we used to ask the librarian at the reference desk for help, we now seek assistance via a Google search. Computer catalogs replaced card catalogs a long time ago. Luddites have long feared the demise of the “book in my hands” and yet we can hardly imagine, even today, the actual evisceration of print books by ebooks. Far from destroying the library as a physical space, one could argue that computers have made them more alive than ever. That may in part be because, unlike Amazon, a library directly reflects a community. Kahle calls this reflection the public library’s “custom” (Junegoldsmith, 2006a, 10:25) fit, meaning that public libraries are traditionally tailor made for the communities they serve. Of course, Amazon.com does have algorithms to remember user searches and recommend similar items. While public libraries try to reflect cultural and demographic trends in the area, Amazon custom fits itself according to specific users.
Kahle argues strongly in favor of libraries expanding remote access and digital resources because he believes that, far from diminishing or replacing the library as a physical space, digital resources enlarge and enrich the entire experience. We can take the library to a person who perhaps has to drive quite far to get to one; or maybe that person doesn’t drive, or can’t drive. Maybe the weather is bad. Maybe the roads are bad. Bad roads and bad weather are no one person’s fault. Why should they be denied access to knowledge on those accounts? They shouldn’t, and thanks to the Internet, and ebooks, they don’t have to. Questions are as easily, if not more easily answered by a Google search as they are at the reference desk at the public library. As search engines have gained sophistication, so has the decline in usage of the reference desk steepened. (Applegate, 2018).While, in one light, this may be viewed as a downside for the career reference librarian, and perhaps a reason to cut funding, it might also be viewed as a very advantageous freeing up of time and resources for more pressing matters. In some ways, it is paradoxical. By answering fewer questions, librarians are actually more helpful because they are answering better questions. The ease of asking Google means that the questions that do make it to a reference desk are the ones that require more interpersonal attention. The reference librarian is freed to do the more specialized work of getting the book in the patron’s hands, or rather, on the patron’s ebook reader.
Kahle brings up the fact that periodicals, especially back issues, have limited availability. He stresses the very core problem of paywalls that keep scholarly materials from wider access. As mentioned already, Kahle criticizes the “snippet view” system in Google Books. It’s a symptom, he says, of the highly centralized system actuated by their scanning operation that began in 2004; Google owns those copies, and by offering the snippet view, they can dance around the publisher litigation that always hangs in the air. Being non-profit, the Internet Archive has a very different attitude. They want digital copies to be at least lendable as full text. Why shouldn’t people be able to borrow ebooks the same way they have always borrowed print books? Even going with the legal argument that ebooks are software, the principle is the same. We can borrow video games and DVD movies in the same way.
The Internet Archive started Controlled Digital Lending (CDL) as a way to combat what founder Brewster Kahle saw as too much centralized control over access to ebooks, especially the public domain and out-of-print books. They set up scanning stations at academic libraries around the world, the Library of Congress, and the New York Public Library. They also invite libraries to incorporate CDL, as explained on their website (https://controlleddigitallending.org/). The Internet Archive implements CDL at the Open Library (https://openlibrary.org). By scanning their own copies, the Internet Archive enables the loaning out of more and more material without (much) legal rebuff. However, their legal troubles escalated in 2020 because they over-lended, via the National Emergency Library, a direct response to library closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Ennis, 2020.)The National Emergency Library launched on March 24, 2020 and closed on June 16, 2020. During that period, at the height of the pandemic, the Internet Archive’s CDL acted as an uncontrolled lending program. Their intentions were noble. They only wanted to ensure that students and teachers, in particular, would still have access to critical materials. Kahle defended the decision, saying that the National Emergency Library’s lifted restrictions were meant to “facilitate remote learning after school buildings were closed.” (Harris, 2020, June 1). Four major publishing houses and several authors were named in the lawsuit filed against the Internet Archive. The lawsuit did prompt the program’s early closure and CDL reverted to its normal terms. (Harris, 2020, June 14).
Was it always thus, a few people (or, rather, corporations) controlling the books? The Catholic Church controlled the books in the Middle Ages. Books had to be written by hand. Nobles bought these books, and if more copies were needed, they had to be copied line for line, page for page by monks in monasteries. The nobles and churchmen were the only ones who could read at all. The printing press made it a little easier to make copies, but it was still hard work at first, and books didn’t really enter middle-class circulation until around the turn of the 18th century. “In 1801, there were said to be 1,000 circulating libraries in England.” (Erickson, 1990, p.574).There is a comical scene in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals, depicting the heroine, Lydia Languish, having some books delivered from a circulating library. Sheridan uses the scene to poke fun at the naughty reading preferences of young ladies of the period. These reading preferences drove the circulation of the collections, and thus the circulating library gained a reputation for having stocks of frivolous reading (Nettleton, 1905, p.492). Male students in the medieval times rented books in university towns, but it was only in the eighteenth century that broader classes of people began to borrow popular works from the circulating libraries that cropped up increasingly throughout English cities and seaside resorts. Like any business, naturally the circulating libraries were set up where people flocked expressly for the purpose of enjoyment and the spending of money. However, the proprietors did recognize the merits of marketing their stocks among the young ladies who were just rich enough to have some pocket change, but not quite wealthy enough to be from manor houses with private libraries. The price of books was on the rise after 1800, relative to the cost of living. (Erickson, 1990, p.573). Jane Austen, relatively poor albeit genteel, was able to get books through a circulating library and she often poked good-humored fun at her contemporaries’ fondness for novels; in contrast to Sheridan's disapproval, Austen staunchly defended the novel. (Austen, 1994, pp.24-25). In Pride and Prejudice, she contrasts the comically uptight Mr. Collins, fond of Fordyce’s Sermons, against the more lighthearted reading preferences of the Bennet sisters. (Erickson, 1990, p.573). In Northanger Abbey, she does the literary equivalent of breaking the fourth wall to deliver to her readers an impassioned defense of novel reading.
“Catherine and Isabella, she wrote, shut themselves up to read novels together. Yes, novels. For I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust.” (Austen, 1994, pp.24-25).
Austen wrote novels for novel readers who related easily to the young female characters in her plots. She wrote them without shame. She was a fan writing with pride for her fanbase. Her books have been digitized many times over. Even though they are obviously now in the public domain, publishers continue to profit off them by repackaging them and printing new prefaces for the delight of Austen’s never-dwindling fanbase. Austen loved the popular literature of her time, and she wrote literature that became more popular over the centuries following her death. This is the literature that has a high demand from readers. Her circulating libraries collected books people wanted to read. Digital collections today are driven and motivated by the same demands.
In his talk at the University of Michigan in 2008, Brewster Kahle surveyed the history of digitization, lending, and indeed the relatively short history of the ebook itself. Symptoms of the problem, he said, were things like the “snippet view” on Google Books, but really the fault was the much larger problem of too much centralization by “homogenous” (Junegoldsmith, 2006b, 2:44)contracts between libraries and the publishing giants, thus making “strip malls” (Junegoldsmith, 2006b, 2:27) out of libraries and eroding an environment that was once “diverse and respondent” (Junegoldsmith, 2006b, 2:29) to locals’ needs. Where did it all go wrong, he pondered before his audience. The problem with Google scanning all the books was that it gave Google ownership of all the digital copies, even of the public domain works. Libraries were understandably averse to the expense of making more copies, so even when Kahle’s crew at the Internet Archive began working with universities in New York and California to digitize all of their print books, they hit a stumbling block when it came to the works already digitized by Google. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, had contracts with the universities, binding the latter to strict terms in which libraries could not share the books with each other without Alphabet’s permission. It meant that libraries effectively had their hands tied. It is generally the nature of the librarian to want to serve the patron above all else, and so as Kahle put it, the librarians had to engage in “collective bargaining” (Junegoldsmith, 2006b, 2:52) with their overlords just for permission to rent databases and loan out digital copies of books.
The Internet Archive unveiled the Open Library in 2011. Supported largely by Kahle’s foundation, the Kahle/Austin Foundation, they digitized 150,000 books published after 1922. They made these ebooks available, free, to people diagnosed with reading disabilities. Then they decided they could help even more people access ebooks by deploying Digital Rights Management to a one-book-one-user-at-a-time model. By uploading books to this encrypted system, they could legally loan them out in the same way that libraries have always loaned out material. Thus was born the concept of “In-Library Lending” to libraries who pay into the Open Library. The Open Library revolutionized ebook lending, and in the broad continuum of book lending overtime, it truly changed the game. The circulating libraries lacked the wider connectivity of the InterLibrary Loan system; the InterLibrary Loan system lacks the instantaneous quality of the Open Library.
NEXT ARTICLE: LITERATURE REVIEW, METHODS, FINDINGS, AND CONCLUSION
Kelly, K. (2006). Scan This Book! New York Times Magazine, 155(53579), 43–71. https://login.libproxy.uncg.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=20841875&site=ehost-live.
Junegoldsmith. (2006a, November 5.) Brewster Kahle’s Michigan Talk. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/BrewsterKahlesMichiganTalk/jsb-kahle-1.wmv.
“Complicated ontology” is how my professor phrased it. He urges me to stop denying the “complicated ontology” of ebooks. They are software, and they are books. How does this duality place ebooks, he asks, “in a longer historical continuum with print lending?” And what does it mean to treat them as objects with a dual nature?
Barclay, D. A. (2017). Space and the Social Worth of Public Libraries. Public Library Quarterly, 36:4, 267-273. https://doi.org/10.1080/01616846.2017.1327767.
Scott, R. (2011). The Role of Public Libraries in Community Building. Public Library Quarterly, 30:3, 191-227. https://doi.org/10.1080/01616846.2011.599283.
Morden, T. (2020, December 15.). The Last Blockbuster [Netflix]. USA: 1091 Pictures. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8704802/.
Shuva, N.Z. (2022). Everybody Thinks Public Libraries Have Only Books. Public Library Usage and Settlement of Bangladeshi Immigrants in Canada. Public Library Quarterly. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/01616846.2022.2074244.
Applegate, R. Who’s Decline? Which Academic Libraries are “Deserted” in Terms of Reference Transactions? References & User Services Quarterly, 48:2, 176-189. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20865037.
Ennis, M. (2020, August 17). Publisher’s Lawsuit Against Internet Archive Continues. Library Journal. https://www.libraryjournal.com/story/publishers-lawsuit-against-internet-archive-continues-despite-early-closure-of-emergency-library.
Harris, E. A. (2020, June 14). Suit prompts internet archive to end program for free books: [books]. New York Times. https://login.libproxy.uncg.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/suit-prompts-internet-archive-end-program-free/docview/2412671157/se-2.
Erickson, L. (1990). The Economy of Novel Reading: Jane Austen and the Circulating Library. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 30(4), 573–590. https://doi.org/10.2307/450560.
Nettleton, G. H. (1905). The Books of Lydia Languish’s Circulating Library. The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 5(4), 492–500. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27699791.
Austen, Jane. (1994). Northanger Abbey. Ebook #121. Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/121.
Junegoldsmith. (2006b, November 5.) Brewster Kahle’s Michigan Talk. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/BrewsterKahlesMichiganTalk/jsb-kahle-2.wmv.