Harry Potter library deal a plus for J. K. Rowling and OverDrive: Muggles, keep open minds!

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When I owned and ran the TeleRead e-book site, I loved to beat up on J. K. Rowling for refusing to offer her wares in electronic form.

How that has changed for  the better! Via her Pottermore operation, she’ll be licensing her Harry Potter e-books to OverDrive for use in thousands of public libraries and schools throughout the world. See Library Journal and an OverDrive news release. OverDrive, of course, is the very company I’ve been urging libraries to buy for the start of a national digital library system for the United States, in part because librarians and publishers are already accustomed to dealing with it. Ideally, key OverDrive people could stay on as advisors to smooth out the transition.

Meanwhile I see huge positives in the OverDrive-Rowling deal. Just like book sales, library loans thrive on mass-media exposure. And how many contemporary novels are more "mass," from book and media perspectives, than the Harry Potter series? Just like formal literacy programs, media mentions foster reading, and movie tie-ins don’t hurt, either. Only the most obtuse Muggles could fail to see some good here.

imageSimply put, the Potter transaction is a stellar example of why I can’t imagine a national digital public library system without a major presence for modern, copyrighted books. As both a reader and writer, I’m endlessly frustrated when certain of my fellow boosters of the Digital Public Library of America fail to appreciate the importance of contemporary books—by far the kind that most library patrons favor. Furthermore, don’t pooh-pooh the growing popularity of e-books of different kinds among the young and the populace at large, or the studies suggesting a connection between academic success and access to books at home.

Mind you, the OverDrive-Rowlings arrangements aren’t perfect wizardry.

Just what will be the exact costs for libraries and schools? Other details? At least as I understand it so far—someone please correct me if I’m wrong—OverDrive’s library customers will not own the library copies for eternal one-patron-at-a-time access under the first sale doctrine. Suppose library budgets decline; what happens to patron access, then? Even now, almost 40 percent of American libraries reportedly do not offer any downloading of e-books, nor is there is focused effort at the national level to make e-book-friendly hardware free or affordable to low-income people. Observe the social tensions that could result from the current failure of the library system in Rockford, Illinois, to plan adequately for digitization to benefit low-income people in a town with high poverty and unemployment rates (may Rockford’s library strategies change!).

The real solution remains exactly what LibraryCity.org has suggested: a well-stocked national digital library system or systems, ideally built with OverDrive as a start and with fair compensation for the library service’s current owners, just as there should be fair compensation for copyright owners. Both libraries and content-providers need to be flexible. If content owners can make allowances, perhaps libraries could be less concerned about licensing as opposed to outright sales. In the other direction, I’d like to see copyright holders work with libraries toward the creation of a good-sized endowment to buy books for a national digital system (or systems, plural—if, like me, you can appreciate the different priorities of public and academic libraries). Shorter copyright terms would also help.

Even this wouldn’t be nirvana. The above plan still wouldn’t make it possible for all library content to be available instantly at no cost and with no restrictions on the lengths of the loan. "Friction" of one kind or another is inevitable, at least if we don’t want to replace all e-bookstores with e-libraries—I myself want stores around for reasons of content diversity and freedom of expression, among others. Still, this strategy would go a long way toward increasing the number of library books available to typical patrons and toward lowering costs through efficiencies of scale and more modern technology.

A nice start would be for librarians and publishers to imitate the example set by the Pentagon and its contractors and spend more time lobbying together—at all levels of government—and less time fighting. A prominent publishing consultant has already seen possibilities of an OverDrive purchase, and I suspect he would likewise welcome less acrimony over the division of the pie and more efforts to increase its size.

And, yes, I can see the above approach for the U.K. and many other countries as well as the States.

Ms. Rowling herself spent time on public assistance and, I’d hope, can empathize with the many victims of library closing in her country. E-books should not replace neighborhood branches, for many reasons, such as the social-worker factor, as well as the possible preference of many toddlers for paper books. But E could go a long way in helping libraries reduce costs and increase services, especially in an era when many millions of boomers may suffer health problems and be unable to make it to the library in person. All in all, flaws notwithstanding, the OverDrive-Rowling deal is a big win for e-books and the growing number of Americans, U.K. people, and others relying on them. Significantly, OverDrive is counting on the overseas market, not just the domestic one, and a true library-model would probably fly better outside the U.S., especially in Canada, than the current for-profit approach.

Photo credit: Daniel Ogren, under Creative Commons licensing.

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