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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Book 'Em

What do Doris Lessing, Joyce Carol Oates, and Sarah Palin have in common? If you said plantar fasciitis, you're only half-right! In fact, they are all mentioned in the same sentence in an article in today's paper. And they're all published by HarperCollins. Which may mean three things in common, depending on how you count. Or only one since we made up the whole plantar fasciitis thing. Anyway, the point is that HarperCollins has begun restricting the way libraries can use e-books.

In the past, when a library would purchase a book (or "book") , the library was free to do all manner of strange and wonderful things with said book: They could boil it; they could use it as sporting equipment; they could even do something called "lending." "Lending" was a ritualized activity, wherein a member of the general public would come to the library, look fruitlessly for a book he wanted, decide to take something else out for the hell of it, wait seven to 94 minutes in a line, and then be allowed by a sharp-faced guardian of literature (unless he were fortunate enough to encounter the rare Tina-Fey-Sexy-Librarian type) to take the book home for anywhere from a week to ten years. (Of course, such longer periods of "borrowing" were discouraged by ever-increasing fines, the largest of which are believed by many to be a culprit in this country's recent foreclosure crisis.) These books were seldom actually read, but clients received a sort of osmotic sense of enrichment simply by toting an armful of them around.

Now, however, with the advent of e-books, one doesn't need actually to cross the lion-guarded threshold of one's local library to borrow books; one can simply download reading material directly to one's e-reader (unless, apparently, it's a Kindle--not sure what that's all about). The books will remain on the reader for the allotted lending period, after which they will simply disappear.

When a publisher sells an e-book to a library, the publisher understands the library will lend the book out. Until now, publishers have treated e-books the same as physical books: When a library buys an e-book, the library owns the book. HarperCollins, though, has instituted a policy whereby e-books disappear from the library's collection after being lent out 26 times--after which the library must buy another copy if it wishes to continue lending it.

The publisher fears it will lose money if it does not engage in such skullduggery. We fail to see how, aside from losing the money libraries would pay to replace lost or damaged physical copies. Indeed, we imagine libararies will lose money by lending e-books. Not only will they be unable to hold as many fundraising book sales, as was noted in the article; they will also, we imagine, be unable to charge late fees. Which, as mentioned above, may run into the billions of dollars.

Now, we know Tea Partiers and Wisconsin politicians will take great pleasure in the thought of fatcat librarians being stripped of their lavish lifestyles, generated on the backs of hard-working, blue-collar late-fee-slaves. But we feel that libraries, although obviously overfunded, are worthwhile institutions. Publishers should thank libraries for the part they play in the uphill battle to promote literacy, not force them to pay (and pay and pay again) for materials they have already bought.

"Publisher Limits Shelf Life for Library E-Books"

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