On February 28, the library e-book vendor Overdrive announced that one publisher's e-books would expire from library collections after 26 circulations, and the publisher in question was challenging longstanding library resource sharing and group purchasing practices. Within hours, the publisher was identified as HarperCollins, and Twitter, Facebook, and the biblioblogosphere exploded with posts trailing the hashtag #hcod for HarperCollins/Overdrive.
Many librarians are joining a boycott of HarperCollins (see: www.boycottharpercollins.com), even though boycotting doesn't come naturally to librarians. Our professional instincts drive us to share content, not limit access to it based on our interests. But this isn't just about library interests. It isn't even about traditional boycotting.
We are not going to bring HarperCollins to its knees with a boycott, nor do we want to. But libraries are heavily invested in publishing and publishers. Like everyone else in the book world, librarians have been trying to figure out our place in an e-book marketplace. Unlike large booksellers, we don't have the means to engineer a customized solution.
Librarians don't begrudge our for-profit partners their income. We work with booksellers, and we want publishers and authors to be profitable. We introduce readers to new authors and titles, we support book groups, and we spearhead communitywide reads.
Libraries are one of the last true commons in modern life, celebrating and championing the right to read and freedom of access to information. Stewardship of the written record is integral to our mission. Libraries don't have a financial stake in the publishing business so much as society has a cultural stake in the future of libraries.
Financially, libraries are beholden to their members, not to a profit margin. Librarians have to be able to tell patrons that we've been responsible stewards of their money. We can't do that with HarperCollins's plan, not just because we can't afford it now, but because we can't sustain it going forward. Not every library offers e-books yet, and those that do would like to expand their offerings. If HarperCollins sets the bar for other publishers, libraries will be unable to start or grow their e-book collections.
Currently, librarians rely on the First Sale doctrine—which makes it legal to circulate materials we purchase and manage—along with our trustworthiness. We enforce copyright laws as much as we can, teaching our patrons about fair use and piracy. We haven't been Xeroxing print books in our back rooms, and we're not about to start teaching people to torrent. If publishers are worried about e-book piracy, librarians are ready and willing allies.
Many libraries lease print books to keep costs down and their patrons happy, but those leasing agreements are equitable for everyone. Publishers, authors, librarians, and readers all benefit from book rentals without damaging our long-term investment in the commons. We struggle with the indefinite shelf life of e-books just as publishers do. Most libraries don't want to own 20 or 30 copies of every bestseller in perpetuity. Many librarians have expressed a strong interest in tiered plans, with options for cheaper, expiring e-books.
Another troubling aspect of the HarperCollins message is the attempt to prevent resource sharing, which is a core value for librarians. Reciprocal borrowing agreements and interlibrary loan mean that even the tiniest library can offer its patrons the world. Consortial Overdrive plans allow smaller libraries to get in on the e-book action. However, neither resource sharing nor group purchasing means we're giving away the store. Librarians diligently enforce agreements with vendors, and the implication that we are not careful in granting membership stings.
The boycott of HarperCollins is not a knee-jerk reaction to feeling slighted. It is a demand to have our voices heard and to protect our already-squeezed budgets until a solution that benefits readers, libraries, and publishers can be found. I'm glad a publisher is willing to experiment with a new model for e-book circulation in libraries, though my hope is that HarperCollins will blaze a trail for collaboration with libraries, not undermine the doctrine that enables us to serve our communities. Publishers, it is not your responsibility to keep libraries afloat. But should it be your mission to close them down?
Kate Sheehan is the Open Source implementation coordinator for Bibliomation, a consortium of public and school libraries in Connecticut. She blogs at loosecannonlibrarian.net.