Tuesday, April 5, 2011

New models for e-book lending

MPR's recent report on e-books and libraries, "The Future Of Libraries In The E-Book Age," had a number of good points that I hadn't seen overtly covered in other articles. Publishers are justifiably concerned about a situation where an infinite number of copies could be produced off a single sale. However the current solution imposes a hopelessly out-of-touch physical business model, requiring that e-books only be available to one user at a time. This is a slap in the face to the whole point of digital content, which is instantaneity. The model suggested in the article by NYPL's Christopher Platt is exactly what I would advocate; libraries would license x number of uses per title which could be circulated simultaneously until the threshold is met, at which point the library would decide whether or not to purchase additional uses. Essentially this is what HarperCollins is offering, but 26 uses is clearly much, much too low a bid. This would probably require new budgeting strategies, but most large libraries already have an algorithm to purchase additional copies of print books if the ratio of requests to copies hits a predefined threshold.

This does come down pretty heavily on libraries having licensed rather than owned content. I'm not terribly bothered by that prospect, and I'm adopting as a mantra the best quote from the article: "it may be heretical — but the future usually is." However perhaps a hybrid model may be more appealing. Perhaps the initial purchase includes an owned digital copy, so that once the licensed iterations are used up there is still a copy available on the one-user-at-a-time model which will probably be adequate once demand dies down. And for content that will become outdated, like travel guides, perhaps libraries will be able to forego the retained copy for a discount.

One thing is for sure, though; making users wait in line for digital content is completely at odds with user expectations.

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