Toward an e-library ecosystem: Public libraries will screw themselves if they don’t learn from Amazon’s comprehensive ‘seamless’ approach

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Video by Lisa Gade of Mobile TechReview, another Fire fan.

Update, Jan. 19, 2012: Here.

How long would I keep my Kindle Fire tablet? I’d bought it mostly just to stay in touch with popular e-book tech.

The Fire is hobbled with onerous digital rights management, favors a proprietary e-book format, and in certain ways is just a cash register for Amazon. Regardless of the millions of Kindles purchased over the holidays, many reviewers hate it.

Amazon’s actual hardware isn’t that great for the money if you compare the Fire with the not-so-locked wares from my favorite Chinese tablet store. I sold my Fire on eBay to a telecommunications engineer in Belarus.

But guess what? Having suffered a soul-wrenching case of seller’s regret—and finding that Alexandr still hoped for a deal regardless of a tiny scratch I belatedly found on the screen—I ordered another Fire.

I did so mainly because of the ecosystem that came with the Fire. Via the carousel of images at top of the home screen, I can move almost instantly from a page of a Vonnegut biography to the scene I was watching in a Woody Allen movie. As a K-12 machine, the Fire might actually be a disaster for some young readers, given the opportunities for distraction. But school-friendly versions of the same machine could limit recreational time and address other issues.  Meanwhile it helps that the Amazon has significantly improved the Kindle e-book app to give me a greater selection of fonts than on my Kindle 3 WiFi model.

And library e-books? I can read many and perhaps most on my Fire (as well as on other Android-based machines, iPads, Macs and PCs, even if the Amazon applications for them aren’t as advanced as the Fire’s e-reader). I needn’t endure the limited font selection and other flaws of the mediocre e-book software from OverDrive, the company that more or less owns the public library market. In March 2011 I begged a nice OverDrive executive to arrange either for some heavier fonts or a way to boldface everything in a book. Adjustable line spacing would have been nice, too. He promised to follow up personally. But still no results. Nor is OverDrive working as smoothly as it could with vendors such as Bluefire to let them build downloading capabilities into their own applications.

Now some public librarians are looking to 3M as a savior, as their nonOverDrive, as their new place to store library-owned e-books without the high fees that OverDrive was insisting on.

I say, “Stop it! Build your own ecosystem and reach out to many companies as partners, not just OverDrive or 3M and friends. Use a true national approach with a coherent and comprehensive strategy encompassing everything from e-book standards to connectivity, both directly and through partners. Stop letting the vendors balkanize the public library world or try to dominate it, OverDrive fashion. Don’t let academic librarians at Harvard or elsewhere dictate to you, either, but do swap content  with them and share the infrastructure and partnership network and other resources, including a common technical organization, just so it’s responsive to public library needs. No need to roll over and die amid chants of ‘Libraries got screwed.’”

Imagine the possibilities of a more imaginative approach in partnership with the academic world and foundation backers (separate digital systems for academic and public libraries, please). For now, public library patrons must wait weeks to enjoy the most popular e-books; and the very biggest of book publishers are tending either to withhold their digital offerings from libraries or impose nasty restrictions like HarperCollins’s infamous 26-checkout limit. The giants don’t want it to be easy for you to check out library books event though loans often promote sales. But with a popular, librarian-controlled ecosystem in place at the national level to augment the commercial ones, publishers would not be able to bully public libraries so easily. Via publicity and mass distribution, libraries could help turn cooperative small publishers into major houses or at least bigger ones, making it more difficult for the the book world’s mega-conglomerates to dictate terms. I’d much rather that publishers and libraries tone down the current feud, so that everyone comes out ahead by lobbying together on library appropriations, for example, just as the Pentagon so often teams up with defense contractors. But either way, a national digital library ecosystem would help by bolstering libraries’ bargaining power. Libraries shouldn’t give away the family jewels to OverDrive, 3M, or others.

Alas, the risk has arisen that the Harvard-based Digital Public Library of America project, which hopes to include public libraries, not just the academic variety, could move in precisely the wrong direction and perhaps not even include bestsellers and other modern copyrighted content so popular among library patrons. This is just one option. But even the discussion of it shows where the DPLA is coming from, as opposed to going all out to create a genuine standards-based ecosystem for the masses on par with Amazon’s in ease of use. Lip service to “openness” and standards is no substitute for action to allay the public libraries e-content crisis. And the right mix of infrastructure and hardware-and-software related standards could go a long way. “I looked at our OverDrive account the other day and it was very common to see 100-200 holds on 10-20 eBook copies of a particular title,” one librarian told Sara Houghton of Librarian in Black fame. “Unbelievable.”

Some DPLA participants might respond, “Who cares? On standards we’ll just go with the flow, and the private sector will come through on the devices.” Prices on devices like the Kindle Fire and iPad will indeed decline and in time perhaps they’ll become more flexible for users with different needs (even the Fire could offer a choice of bolder fonts and ideally an “all bold” option). But one fact will remain: profit-driven corporations, not libraries, will create the devices and do what they can to link them to proprietary eco-systems. One result, among others? A higher percentage of public domain books could end up with on sale to captive, device-crimped customers, especially the less tech savvy who don’t feel comfortable downloading free files from the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, and the like. And meanwhile public libraries will enjoy less bargaining power with publishers and retailers since the libraries will be just bypassable middle people, a fear that that I share with others such as Gary Price of Infodocket. The long waits for library e-books could, as Gary points out, make patrons think, “Who needs libraries these days?” Just buy the book.

I badly want public library books to remain available on Kindles. But it is wrong, wrong, wrong that, via OverDrive, through which patrons send checkout privileges to their Kindles, so many public libraries are now just marketing affiliates for Amazon—itself now edging into the lending business, via its freebies for Prime customers. What’s more, libraries cannot even protect the privacy of Kindle users, who, when they check out a library book, get marketed to by Amazon. The OpenLibrary project at the Internet Archive is a great alternative to an OverDrive approach but hardly the comprehensive infrastructure solution that public libraries so urgently need to maintain and ideally increase their bargaining power. And I don’t just mean by way of servers.

America’s libraries should even be able to spin off up their own store-and-rental service that could deal directly with publishers without Amazon, Google, OverDrive or any other company controlling so much of the show. The goal here is to make life easier for library users, not hurt the for-profit side. In fact, businesses could actually thrive. For example, Amazon and other companies could partner up with libraries to help use family literacy projects to grow the number of readers (well-targeted Amazon promo could help recruit volunteers and encourage donations at the local level, for example). That should the real issue here, as opposed to who dominates the market. Even a high-ranking Amazon executive has more or less said the same. In the interest of freedom of expression and content diversity, I want a mixed model, as opposed to libraries and business offshoots being the only source of books. Furthermore, hardware meeting the standards of national digital library system could still run reading apps from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other companies. In fact, I’d rather that libraries not make or even market tablets.

But as part of an ecosystem libraries, can at least promote the establishment of a store-and-retail service—and:

–Set up their own servers and storage facilities, which the commercial side would be welcome to use—to take advantage of stable links. Libraries can last for decades and, let’s hope, centuries. Most publishers lack the same longevity. With librarian-curated links, publishers could more confidently and economically issue networked books linking to other texts and multimedia.

–Promote technical standards in cooperation with groups such as the International Digital Publishing Forum, home of the ePub format.

–In a related vein, simplify life for e-book-gizmo shoppers and issue Underwriters-style seals of approval, with a logo promoted through aggressive marketing. The approval would not come unless a device were easily usable for library purposes. The okay would be accompanied by plain-English information on the kinds of library-related uses for which the hardware was most fit, and the users for which the machine was best suited.

To sum up the above, libraries need to create an ecosystem working easily with hardware and software from a number of sources, so things are still Kindle-seamless no matter what machine a library user owns.

You should be able to borrow an e-book from a public library, annotate it, and retain your notes after renting or buying it from a library-related organization that would be separate from the actual national digital library system but still interconnect with it and perhaps kick back some of the revenue. I’d much rather that current digital rights management go away entirely, even if libraries depend on it for enforcing expiration. But if DRM remained, then library-related book lockers would be far safer ways of storing books than the current arrangements at Amazon and other companies.

To give one example of the problems, even though the Kindle’s ecosystem is generally seamless as long as you stay within it, I got a good scare after Amazon had transferred hundreds of books from my Fire #1 to Fire #2. Originally every one of them came over. But whatever the reason, all but eight vanished last week, and even with help from Amazon, I had to spend several hours restoring my collection worth probably more than $1,000. Companies like Amazon, Google, and Barnes & Noble might even be able to participate in the book-locker system, just so they honored technical standards. This would free them to spend more time selling and marketing e-books and reading hardware and less time worrying about storage and user-support issues, and beyond that, consider the business opportunities in areas such as cloud storage for the digital library system and related activities such as the rental-and-retail service (IBM and Microsoft are among the other prospective beneficiaries from this and related activities, and 3M itself could also do well with the right strategy).

Under a librarian-overseen locker system, e-books would be far, far more ownable than today, regardless of changes in technology, and both libraries and corporations would benefit. Librarians should stop thinking, “What’ll improve our turnstile counts, both real and virtual?: and start thinking, “How can we help booklovers and other patrons in ways that go beyond traditional institutional roles while actually reinforcing such venerable goals as mass literacy.” I truly loathe the trendy talk of ending libraries’ mission as “book-warehouses.” Damn it, libraries are good for much more than storage of books—but isn’t this among what they do best? How the devil can libraries popularize books and help people absorb them if they stop being a primarily source of them?

I know. Libraries, publishers, and retailers are wedded to current business models, and all kinds of issues come up. Many librarians and academics, for example, look with distaste upon commercial and promo activities, even less pushy ones than typical online retailers use.

And that is one reason why the rental-and-purchase system might be separate from an actual public or library system, even if it operates with heavy librarian participation and with library values in mind.

Whether or not the library world goes for a rental and retail operation and make the ecosystem as far-reaching as I’d like, I hope that librarians will at least understand the need for this ecostrategy for e-books and ideally other media. Don’t use OverDrive, 3M, or any other company as a crutch! If nothing else, librarian-managed book lockers are a concept to explore, both as a help to users and as a potential source of revenue from the public or participating partners such as electronic bookstores or publishers.

Disclosure/reminder: I’m a small Google shareholder, a fact that has never prevented me from speaking out against the proposed Book Search Agreement.

And a Kindle Fire tip: On nonDRMed books, the tech-savvy can use the wonderful Calibre e-book management software to make the text bolder on the Kindle and other devices. Even advanced LCD screens—forget about the E Ink, worse—often don’t give me enough contrast for reading. Same for millions of other readers. Trouble is, most e-book users lack the time and the skills for this to be a solution. So, Jeff Bezos, please think about a simple switch that would enable people like me to “embolden” all of a book if we wanted. This would help sales. By cranking up the perceived contrast via optional bolding, users won’t have to turn up the brightness as much. Result? Less strain on some people’s eyes. And more readability when the ambient lighting is bright.

More for Fire users: Contrary to general belief, you can read Nook and Kobo books on the Fire with the right tweaking. You can either jail-break the Fire to get around Amazon’s limitations or find the applications from sources other than Google’s Android Market, which Amazon has blocked.

Update, January 4: To be able to use nonAmazon-store apps on a Fire, you’ll need to make a tweak in the Device submenu within Settings—tell your device to allow apps from “Unknown Sources.” You can find out more via an exchange between Andrys Basten and me on the TeleRead site. Amazon is now allowing access to Google’s Android Market, without an obnoxious redirect to its own marketplace; but, whoever is at fault, the Fire still cannot use the apps there. May this change!

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One comment to “Toward an e-library ecosystem: Public libraries will screw themselves if they don’t learn from Amazon’s comprehensive ‘seamless’ approach”
One comment to “Toward an e-library ecosystem: Public libraries will screw themselves if they don’t learn from Amazon’s comprehensive ‘seamless’ approach”
  1. Pingback: Toward an e-library ecosystem: Public libraries will screw themselves if they don’t learn from Amazon’s comprehensive ‘seamless’ approach - The Digital Reader

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