If we can buy Alaska, can’t we purchase OverDrive for a national digital library system? Reflections from a visit to the National Archives

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Update: See my related article on the LibraryJournal.com Web site.

image"Seward's Folly" was what the skeptics dubbed America's 1867 purchase of Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million. No one had found gold in the Klondike by then. And yet America was buying a distant territory twice the size of Texas. Secretary of State William Henry Seward faced doubts aplenty on Capitol Hill.

Almost 145 years later, along with others from a workshop of the Digital Public Library of America, I walked into a slightly chilly vault at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., and beheld some actual paperwork from the Alaska transaction. Not just George Washington's signature of loyalty to the American Revolutionaries decades before. Not just the signed oath that Benedict Arnold broke, or a handwritten Civil War-era memo from Abraham Lincoln. Images of gold, oil, and tundra were far from the only ones on my mind. In fact, I was also thinking of another deal we needed to make. Let's purchase OverDrive, for it to become the start of a well-stocked national digital library system or systems.

OverDrive is the leading supplier of e-books to our public libraries and countless others throughout the world. Here, here, here, and here, I have laid out the case for a sale to either libraries or a nonprofit corporation acting on their behalf. America's libraries or the related nonprofit would be buying more than technology alone. OverDrive has spent many years building relationships, which it now enjoys with 15,000 libraries, schools and colleges, and with 1,000 publishers; and ideally key people could remain in advisory roles to help assure a smooth transition.

Complexities do, yes, exist. OverDrive will need to be willing to sell at the right price, which I won't even attempt to suggest here, not knowing all the variables, which disinterested appraisers could consider. Funds will have to be found from either the public or private side; I suspect that the latter is most likely now. Publishers will need to cooperate if the present contracts rely on OverDrive's current ownership, which most likely they do. The library world must show sufficient interest. Speaking informally with some key people from the DPLA, I indeed found enthusiasm if the details could be worked out. And I hope that publishers will understand the possibilities as well, in aligning their financial interests more closely with those of the library world's.

Although libraries would enjoy more clout than now, publishers would not have to to worry as much about middleman's fees. What's more, if the Pentagon and its contractors can lobby together on Capitol Hill and elsewhere for higher appropriations, why not publishers and librarians, especially if both sides can show more flexibility toward possible business models? Also, an existing electronic library infrastructure would make it easier for major foundations to contribute, even with refinements ahead. In the strict sense, this would probably not be a direct federal acquisition the way Alaska was. But along with state and local governments—which do business with OverDrive now—perhaps Washington could provide at least some operational revenue through the Institute of Museum and Library Serivces. IMLS, in fact, already aids libraries with money for e-book and other tech programs.

imageI'm just sorry that Steve Potash, the CEO of OverDrive, was not with us in the vault to ponder the possibilities and the chance to help make history just as Riggs Bank did with its handling of financial details of the Alaska transaction. In this case, however, OverDrive would be the actual seller, and OverDrive and its investors would be in a far, far better position than Russia was. Of course, Steve faces intense competition from companies such as as 3M; and he is endlessly reliant on the goodwill of Amazon, to which OverDrive's links point Kindle owners. All this could potentially slash OverDrive's value in the future. Not to mention changes in technology, whether through Moore's Law or otherwise. In Steve's place, I'd think about business reasons to sell, not just patriotic ones. Still, I suspect that at this point he is better off than Tsar Alexander II, who unloaded Alaska on the United States not merely for direct financial reasons but also to reduce the chances of future confrontation with Great Britain. Better to sell now, Steve. A discount would be nice, but I'm not demanding one. The proposal here is simply for you and your investors to receive a fair price unless you decide to cut the taxpayers a little slack.

For the moment at least, I am not going to approach you directly, merely include OverDrive in a tweet about this post; but please think about your place in history. I know. OverDrive is a family business, with Loralee, your librarian-degreed wife, among its executives. I wouldn't be surprised if you wanted to pass it on to your children, and if so, I understand. But also consider the opportunity to empower them with the resultant money from the sale to start their own businesses or philanthropies. With inflation considered, the amount might be less than the money that the sale of Alaska brought Russia, but in some ways, the transaction could be even more significant; for here is a chance to help develop not land or mineral resources but the minds of Americans of all ages and even win some goodwill abroad. Far from being mere details, OverDrive's overseas operations could team up with foreign library systems to provide a rich source of American culture for people outside the States. Without trying, I've already heard from Canada, where a librarian understandably wonders why libraries there aren't doing what OverDrive is (also see another unsolicited but welcome comment from up North).

More on Alaska and the Archives and the DPLA: Yes, at the top of this post, you're seeing the $7.2-million check, visible in more detail via Wikipedia and also on display from ourdocuments.gov (along with the actual treaty). Some DPLA's Governance Workstream members were there in the vault through the graciousness of David S. Ferriero, the 10th archivist of the United States as well as cochair of the workstream (and along the way a Twitter user and a blogger as "collector in chief").

Earlier, at the workshop elsewhere in the building, the Workstream discussed such issues as the structure and other aspects of the DPLA. The meeting was more on procedures and issues to ponder, like "analogous organizational models,"  than on final choices. But I managed to get in a few words on behalf of separate but closely cooperating academic and public systems, rather than just one (so public library concerns such as the digital divide wouldn't be lost in the shuffle—even though the two systems could share a common technical organization refining and expanding OverDrive's services in this area).  Thanks to DPLA Chair John Palfrey, also governance cochair, for his flexibility.

He and colleagues agreed that the DPLA must not make significant decisions in private, with such exceptions as personnel matters; rather standard on the whole (otherwise this would be a longer report and not at the end). Here's the DPLA staff's memo on openness issues.

Robert DarntonIn addition, workstream participants considered policies for remote participation in the DPLA's workshops. I myself would be happy with medium-quality audio that was remotely streamed over the Net and also available "real time" via the phone–just so microphones were well placed. I would also like much more detailed coverage through Twitter, ideally with a staffer assigned to fill in gaps from others. And the posting of slides and relevant documents would also be good (in fact, the DPLA has released some important workshop papers in advance—such as for the Wednesday's workshop). Audio quality and other matters have suffered at some workshops, but it's great to know that the Governance Workstream recognizes the importance of addressing these issues. Let's see what happens.

And last but not least: Congratulations to Robert Darnton (above photo), the main proposer of the DPLA initiative, for winning a National Humanities Medal from the White House.

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4 comments to “If we can buy Alaska, can’t we purchase OverDrive for a national digital library system? Reflections from a visit to the National Archives”
4 comments to “If we can buy Alaska, can’t we purchase OverDrive for a national digital library system? Reflections from a visit to the National Archives”
    • Thanks, Anthony, but the lessons from the NetLibrary have less to do with the business model than with different mistakes made.

      NetLibrary started out as an independent company, and then OCLC picked up the pieces.

      Unfortunately, NetLibrary lacked the proper selection of titles for the public, the interface wasn’t optimal, and the IP-protection approach wasn’t exactly consumer-friendly, either.

      At one point my wife couldn’t even read her NetLibrary books offline.

      OverDrive didn’t get everything right and still hasn’t, but at least in terms of content, it’s clearly learned from the NetLibrary experience.

      NetLibrary is actually an argument for buying OverDrive, which grew while NetLibrary faded away. EBSCOL swallowed what was left. Other priorities had mattered more to OCLC.

      On top of everything else, keep in mind that e-book adoption is much greater before and there are more publishers willing to participate in online library systems. Even if all the big houses backed out of OverDrive, thousands of small publishers would be left for libraries to help grow into large ones.


  1. I admittedly have no knowledge of the internal dollars and cents workings of Overdrive — but it does touch on topics that I have always believed in.  The Federal government can save the Public library systems a ton of cash if they do the following.

    1. Buy the rights to a large number of children's books, commision more, and find the ones that are in public domain — and then publish the same themselves, and sell them to the Public libraries at cost.

    2. Start a national database of books with an isbn number with all relevant infomation so that a library tech or page could ( in most cases ) scan the book's barcode and have all appropriate descriptions, metatags, etc populate the individual library systems computer information sysytems.

    3. Start a comprehensive collection of dvds that would be available to Public Libraries at cost which would contain public domain e-books ( my pick is on the epub format ) that have been burnt onto seperate catagories (scifi, mystery, romance,     etc) so that they could be lent out to the public.  Each separate disc could contain tens of thousands of books.  Hunting around for the hundreds of sites offering them for free would then become unnecessary.  A  supplement disc could then be made available on a monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly basis or the such.  Each disc would also contain a .pdf file giving the contents of same ( Title, Author, etc. ).

    Just a thought anyway.

  2. Thanks for your opinions, L.O. A lot of sensible people share our feelings about the greater value that a different approach could add. Here are a few thoughts on your specifics:

    1. I agree in many ways, but I'd want librarians at the local and state levels to have lots and lots of input. These days I'm speaking about a national digital public library system, tightly intertwined with a separate academic one. One way to get around so many people's distrust of Washington would be for the public system to be a multistate organization rather than an outright part of the federal government even though D.C. could help financially.

    A variety of business models could be used, including outright purchase of rights to the books of interested writers and publishers. What's more, yes, writers and publishers on occason could be commissioned. At the same time I don't want governments dominating the publishing industry, and there's still room for more traditional models.

    As for "How to pay?"—well, you might check out LibraryCity's proposal in the Chronicle of Philanthropy for a national digital library endowment. Not a panacea, but certainly a possbile help.

    2. Cat info is already highly automated, though there's still plenty to be done.

    3. DVDs could be made available to patrons wanting them–ideally to keep, not borrow, if the titles are public domain. But everything should also be available online for ease of discovery and use. As for PDF vs. ePub, we should have both in the case of books that were originally p-books. 

    Thanks again for your feedback!



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