While U.S. library leaders dilly-dally, OverDrive breaks ground for its own world digital library in Garfield Heights, Ohio

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imageOverDrive, the main distributor of commercial e-books for America’s public libraries and probably others in the English-speaking world, will build a “world headquarters” in Garfield Heights, Ohio—complete with a 12-acre campus for 300 employees in 95,000 square feet of office space.

“OverDrive’s new ‘green’ Blue Sky Campus,” says the announcement of the ground-breaking, “will include over five acres of open space dedicated to outdoor use, including extended outdoor meeting space, a small pond and a 0.3-mile walking path.”

imageSo what does this mean in terms of LibraryCity’s recommedation—that America’s libraries buy OverDrive, directly or via a nonprofit run on their behalf? Cuts two ways. Obviously OverDrive was not intending to sell itself. But plans for that 12-acre campus were probably long in the works before LibraryCity started broaching the purchase issue, and I still at least hope that OverDrive’s executives will do the right thing, now that they know what’s at stake. A little patriotism, please, from CEO Steve Potash (photo) and others. And compassion, too.

Steve, read this MetaFilter item about the almost-Dickensian conditions for some library patrons, and also consider the rich-vs.-poor conflicts that OverDrive e-books are creating in Rockford, Illinois.

The economies of affordable e-books, combined with actions on such access issues as hardware and connectivity, could help libraries better serve the people who most needed them. Privatizing our public libraries, slowly or instantly, directly or indirectly, is not the answer.

For now, here are few matters for both OverDrive and libraries in the U.S.  and elsewhere to ponder:

1. All the brick-and-mortar and green campuses in the world will not remove the uncertainties of technology and of competition and potential competition from Amazon, Google, 3M and the rest. By being a real part of a real national digital public library system, OverDrive would enjoy countless advantages over other organizations. If libraries bought OverDrive they could either stop the construction and sell off the complex—or choose to keep it. Whatever made sense. I myself favor frugality right now, but will keep an open mind.

2. Just how will libraries react if OverDrive goes ahead with this obviously multi-million-dollar project while raising charges to customers? Might some of them just run away, the way Kansas’s state librarian did and as Canadians are talking about? With or without investment money from Wall Street, OverDrive is saying to its customers—librarians and others: “You’re going to pay for this complex in the end. And our private-sector salaries” You bet the 1 percents on the Street want a good return! A  foundation-funded purchase would pay Steve for his property, in the best capitalistic tradition, and also honor the spirit of Andrew Carnegie if OverDrive cut the taxpayers a bit of a break. I’m in favor of a deal even without a break. If the offer came, I’d hope that Steve at least would agree to a fair price and avoid being a Carnegie in reverse.

Meanwhile, I already have my answer about some librarians’ reactions. “In the wake of all the communications of failed partnerships with publishers, etc.,” writes a Library Journal commenter, “is this necessarily good news or a good reflection for OverDrive’s use of funds and resources? Shouldn’t appear so for libraries and their users, I’m afraid. Looks to me as though OD is overcharging libraries for content to be able to support this massive endeavor. Doesn’t paint a pretty picture to me.” Ditto.

3. Is it really the place of a private company, essentially answerable to no one but shareholders, to decide how so much library money will be spent? Yes, that is the related question OverDrive is raising with its announcement.

4. What about conflicts of interest if OverDrive starts originating content in traditional publishing terms? I wouldn’t be so worried about this if OverDrive were public. But as the dominant private company selling to U.S. public libraries, will OverDrive give its own books a break at the expense of competitors?

In the place of the American Library Association and other major library groups I would think more than ever about seeking philanthropic funding for a purchase of OverDrive, and if the company refused to be bought out, then I would use that as ammunition to rally support for a genuine national digital public system that created and promoted its own content. OverDrive would be the loser. Someday that pricey campus just might be on the auction block.

For now, though, the biggest question is, “Do we really want our national digital library, or at least an organization with so many of its functions, to be built by a private company? And also what does this mean for the rest of the world?”

Will America’s top librarians keep dilly-dallying or will they take action with meaningful carrots and sticks (specifics here)? Especially I’m pained—though not surprised—by the ALA’s somnolence here. Come on, ALA. Get on the horn now to prospective benefactors to finance an OverDrive purchase, and then make OverDrive an offer it can’t refuse!

OverDrive isn’t it in just for the money, but that’s no small factor here. If the terms are right, then Wall Street and OverDrive will sell out to its library customers. What’s more, I’ve already suggested that, rather being being cast aside, OverDrive’s present mangement could still serve as advisors—just so they understood that the reborn company would be run in a cost-effective, user-friendly way. Come, Steve and fellow investors. You still have a chance to be heros rather than simply money-machines for the one percent at the expense of the 99.

Why I see the Digital Public Library of America as involved in the library buyout of OverDrive: (1) Based on my information chats with them, the group’s leaders are open to such a purchase if the conditions are right. (2) The DPLA could help OverDrive refine the current infrastructure, and could help academic and public libraries establish their own systems handling matters such as acquisitions. (3) While the DPLA at times has been too secretive, it has made considerable progress in this regard, while, ironically, some grassroots efforts have not been nearly as open—in terms of information about plans, and in terms of participation. My own hope is that the library community can get behind the DPLA, while  aiming for separate public and private sytems sharing content and infrastructure.

The Washington angle: In effect, through inaction, the White House and Congress have left the national digital library policy issue to the DPLA. This could still have a very happy ending—the DPLA has some good people. But maybe Washington needs to send the DPLA a message that it should think in grander terms that it is now. Otherwise OverDrive will be—not just plan to be—our national library.

Related: Smug about OverDrive? Smug about OverDrive? A whopping 39 percent of U.S. public libraries don’t offer downloadable e-books. Does D.C. care? E-textbooks are no substitute, Mr. President.

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