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I participated last week in an online chat via Twitter about eBooks put on by Follow the Reader.  Something I wrote then, and thought bore repeating is as follows, succinctly summarized in one Tweet:

I think w/o new ebook DRM, licensing, & copyright, library ebooks will continue to exist only in our communities’ margins.

I strongly feel that eBooks & eAudioBooks are only used on the margins of our library communities.  Not because people don’t have the technology–they do.  And not because they don’t want eBooks–they do.  But because using library eBooks is such a horrible pain, sometimes impossible, due to the restrictions that DRM places on us (which affects the subsequent issues of licensing & copyright).

The publishers need to realize that DRM doesn’t stop the real pirates.  All it does is frustrate normal folks trying to read an eBook on their Blackberry.  What it ultimately does is prevent people from accessing the very content that the publishers are trying so hard to promote!  Why?  When will they wake up and realize that these issues prevent normal readers from reading their authors’ content?  How many people need to make this argument, how many frustrated customers do they need as proof?

I chime in as a frustrated customer.

I recently purchased an Android HTC Eris smart phone.  I have a Mac at home, and a PC at work.  This means that I have three separate “groupings” of library eBook content that I can access, depending on what device I’m using at the time.  My library subscribes to several eBook collections: Overdrive, MyiLibrary, NetLibrary, TumbleBooks, Safari Tech Books, and Learning Express eBooks.  What I can access on each depends heavily on my device.  Why?  Digital Rights Management.

I have tried downloading our several downloadable collections onto my Android phone.  According to the documentation on these vendors’ websites, I should be able to do so.

Let’s take Overdrive as our test case.  I don’t mean to pick on Overdrive, but it is definitely representative of what I experience with all library eBook providers.

I begin by happily installing the Overdrive Media Console onto my PC and my Mac (for home & work eBook use).  I download the Overdrive app onto my Android phone, which I am encouraged to do on our library’s Overdrive site.

But then I see after the fact on the Overdrive website that because I am using Android, I can only access MP3 audio books on my device, which GREATLY reduces my selection.  WAV audio books (the bulk of our collection), music, and video are completely off the table unfortunately and I cannot access them.  Worse  yet, I cannot access any of the text eBooks.  No PDF access whatsoever.  By the by, I had to hunt for this information on the Overdrive website–nothing came up on my Android download warning me about the limited access.

Nevertheless, as the Digital Futures Manager for a large public library, I persist.  I feel guilty.  If I can’t figure it out, who could, right?  So, I find a relatively old semi-classic MP3 audio book in our collection that I can try downloading.  I download it to my work PC (not even wanting to get into the whole Mac issue at home).  It downloads successfully.  Then I try transferring it to my Android.  I get error message after error message.  Troubleshooting tips included checking that I had the console on my phone (check) and that I had plenty of SD card space for the MP3 file (check).  I tried transferring the whole thing, then just the first part, then a whole different book.  No luck.

I asked Overdrive for help, and was told “Yeah, sometimes that happens and we don’t know why. It seems to happen a lot with Android.”

So I am left having wasted about an hour and a half trying to get a book I didn’t even like or want onto my phone, and have nothing to show for it.  And you know what?  I have the same experience with almost every eBook platform we have.  It’s all bad.

Imagine that this experience just happened to a library customer.  Do you think they would even ask for help from you, or just give up? I wager that about 2/3 just give up right there (or before that point) and never try library eBooks again.  Maybe 1/3 ask for help, and I’m thinking the half of that group eventually gets tired, fed up, and gives up too.  maybe half of that group actually gets an adequate answer so that they want to return to the collection and keep using it for a grand total of 1/6 of our potential users being successful.  That is not a good success rate.

It makes me wonder: How many of our library customers have tried eBooks once, failed, and given up…never to try again?

I feel guilty writing this.  I feel embarrassed.  eBooks are in my area of management for my library, and I can’t figure out how to get them onto my own smart phone! Why was my entire experience frustrating? DRM. The hurdles, apps, restrictions, and differences in devices wouldn’t exist if there was no DRM.

Beyond that, what I could get theoretically wasn’t even what I wanted!  The good books are WAVs which don’t work on my device!  Why?  DRM.

It’s high time that a group of librarians banded together, really hard and really fast, and demanded from the publishers that they recognize our right to treat an eBook title like a print book title.  We should be able to loan it out to as many users, one after another, as we want.  Those users should be able to read any of our books, no matter their preferences for reading environments (in this case, devices).  And those users should be able to print a page if they need to, or excerpt an audio clip for a report they’re giving.  But of course not–most eBooks and eAudioBooks do not allow these meager things.  They’re locked down and locked up.

I would like to see ALA gather a group to work on digital content issues — to work with the publishers and with the vendors to find solutions that work not only for the publishers and vendors, but for libraries as well.  We all know we’re unhappy with the status quo but so far we’ve done nothing about it.  We’re not boycotting inflexible publishers.  We’re not boycotting vendors who create operating-system-specific platforms (e.g. that don’t work with Macs or iPods).  We’re not boycotting vendors with horrible systems (again, not picking on Overdrive–they’re all pretty hard to use).

What are your own concerns about eBooks?  Your own problems at your library?  What do you hear from your library customers?  What would your eBook Nirvana look like?  Tell us all by commenting.

“I am a frustrated eBook (non) user”

  1. eBookNoir Says:

    You bring up some great concerns, what’s more is that you aren’t only dealing with DRM but also different platforms themselves that these eBooks work on. Myilibrary for instance is PDF at heart, but wrapped with DRM and only hosted by them and they allow no downloading or other external access unless you login from your web browser. In libraries and academics this is a headache and then throw in the mix of consumer eBooks where you have multiple hosts of the content and it gets even crazier. Much in the same way that people are trying to develop a standard for eBooks – ePUB, that is being more focused on the consumer or leisure reading market, fiction and such. Some of this has to do with how tables, charts, formulas, etc are used in say a research library vs your public library or consumer crowd. Not swinging a bat at anyone, just pointing out the uniqueness. Companies like ebrary, EBL and Myilibrary offer tools and collaboration features that are not found in other readers and we have to look at the library market differently, for many the reader is software, not hardware. The problem is no connection is made between the two and causes frustration and dissatisfied users all around, not good for eBooks in general.

    Your idea of a group to gather at ALA is great, I’d love to see it happen and really have a good discussion on what librarians want to see, where they have needs and also for the aggregators to talk about what they do and how they do it so, a forum where you could just talk, no pointing fingers, just conversation. Whenever I do this with librarians, you can build much better relationships and work more collaboratively. Of course, most would say I’m nuts to lay everything on the table and truly talk, but then again, you gotta be a little nuts to try and figure out everything going on, gives you a new perspective. I for one would like to see that kind of group meeting and if it happens, please let me and everyone in library world know.

    - eBookNoir

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  3. jessamyn Says:

    This is a wonderfully stated position. As our patrons move into the tech world using multiple platforms and various devices, we sort of stop being the go-to information provider for them if we can’t even use the tools that we spend good money for. I know Overdrive has nice people working for them, but their business and content delivery models are broken and libraries are bearing the brunt until we shape up and demand more usable interfaces.

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  6. pollyalida Says:

    Absolutely agree with you. I used to be a heavy user of audio books, but I’ve pretty much given up on on them at this point. Far too frustrating to manage them these days. I can’t imagine why patrons would persist in trying to use them either. I do want to be able to use them, but not if it’s this frustrating. It is indeed time for something to give!

  7. Frank Skornia Says:

    Great post and I agree on many points – despite being an avid eBook convert myself. I absolutely love my Amazon Kindle, yet I can see numerous reasons why it will not be the sole tool driving the revolution from print to digital. It is a wonderful device for long-form fictional reading, it even works well for nonfiction that you’re intending to read cover to cover. Unless the publisher took the effort to encode a proper table of contents, it can be really difficult to jump to a specific section in the book, which makes it hard to use for reference materials or for specific research. In addition, Amazon still hasn’t added support for the ePub format, which is unofficially being recognized as the standard format for eBooks. I think once they decide to support this format their reader and various software packages will become the major player in the eBook world.

    But this is all a little off topic from your post. This comic here: matches your frustrations perfectly. One thing that I believe is proving true over and over again is that DRM solutions do more to impede legitimate users of the media than they do to prevent pirates from ripping off the material. The music industry learned this the hardware (and even went to scary lengths to protect their content as Sony showed with their rootkit debacle), and while they’re still incredibly stubborn, they have made strides to move to freer content. The success of iTunes and other for-pay music download sites show that people are still willing to buy their entertainment content if the price is reasonable and they’re not treated as criminals from the start.

    Unfortunately, book publishers refuse to understand the lessons learned by the music industry and are making many of the same mistakes. They treat their eBook customers as potential thieves, not only do they believe that they’ll steal the content and share it with the internet but that they steal sales from other book forms (hardcovers, audiobooks, etc.). I am sure there are some very bright people in the publishing industry, but they need to recognize the writing is on the wall for old-school printing, and need to figure out how they’re going to succeed in our rapidly changing society.

    You ask what about an eBook Nirvana? In my utopia of eBooks, I see a single format that is device agnostic. It does not matter whether you own a Kindle, an Android device, a nook, an iPad, an iPhone, a netbook, a Macintosh, or a refrigerator (don’t laugh, there are already internet-capable refrigerators that keep track of your expiration dates and sends you e-mails) you will be able to download the eBook, preferably in a single operation. If you wanted to, you could copy that book from one of your devices to the other, and it will keep track of your progress (you can see this with the Kindle and the associated apps). To support libraries, and to appease the publishers, keep it limited to devices registered to you (in this perfect world we have a universal internet registration that links all of these together) to prevent you copying it for all your friends. This last bit would of course be different if you actually purchased the eBook, because then you should be able to loan it to friends.

    Also to satisfy the publisher’s protections, the library would have a limited number of licenses for the book which would be lent on a similar borrowing schedule to dead tree books (DTBs). The library would have the option of purchasing more licenses for extremely popular books, and then be able to trade in licenses for less popular works which they can use to buy newer ones. In this way the library has two ways to acquire more electronic content – paying directly for licenses or “weeding” out excess licenses in their collections to trade for new materials. If I remember correctly, I believe that Safari Tech Books has a system similar to this. This system would still protect the content for the publishers, but allow libraries to treat the ebooks like they do the rest of their collection.

    The thing is, as I wrote that I realized how much of that technology is available now, although through disparate services. EBook format is a debate that is still raging, but once they settle on something that would solve that point. The universal internet login and connecting all your devices together certainly will become possible (look how well your Android phone innately syncs with Google’s services with very little effort on the user’s part). If I’m correct about Safari Tech Books’ system, then you already have the license issue dealt with. We also see the expiring downloads with things like audiobooks and digital movie rentals, so it wouldn’t be difficult to include that with the eBook software. Nearly all of this stuff is possible now or will be in the next five years (I’ll try to be optimistic on that count) – what’s missing is the drive to combine them all and make them into a viable service. As you mention at the end of your post, having an ALA group form to work with the publishers and vendors might be the driving force in getting this all to work.

  8. Sarah Houghton-Jan Says:

    I think I like you Frank. :)

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  10. Frank Skornia Says:

    Thanks :-) I love your blog – you write about a lot of the aspects of librarianship that I’m interested in pursuing, so it becomes an excellent window into the industry.

    I actually forgot this at the end of my post. You mention having trouble transferring the file once it’s downloaded to your PC to your phone. This may be a stupid question (but hard to resist after several years doing computer tech support) did you remember to mount the SD card once the phone was connected to the PC? Unfortunately it’s one of those slightly obnoxious things about Android -which I wouldn’t give up if Future Steve Jobs were to materialize before me with an iPhone 6G.

  11. Brian Kavanagh Says:

    Check BeWrite Books. DRM free.

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  14. Bobbi Newman Says:

    Sarah I completely agree with you. The ebook and eaudiobook model for libraries is broken. My personal opinion is libraries should stop offering these services until they work well. Instead we feel that we need to offer something, so we settle for less. It doesn’t take much to frustrate a user so they never come back. A service that doesn’t work is worse than no service at all. Anyone who’s talked with me about ebooks has heard me say “Staying with (insert vendor here) just so you can say you have ebooks is like staying with a boyfriend who beats you just so you can say you have a boyfriend”. Worse we pay exorbitant amounts of money for this “privilege”.

    Professionally as the person who deals with training and troubleshooting for these services, they are appalling. There is so much software to download and install, updates to worry about, device issues. No wonder people stick with Apple at least it is easy to use,

  15. Starbookzz Says:

    Here’s a thought–why not lobby manufacturerers of Kindle, Android, iPad, Mac, Blackberry, etc. to make their devices compatible with DRM’d WMA and EPUB files? The problems you describe seem hardware-related.

  16. cavalier Says:

    My public library uses Overdrive and I have the same problem with audiobooks. What’s especially galling is that converting files to MP3 is rather simple; yet Overdrive doesn’t do that and the DRM prevents me from doing it.

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  18. Dan Gibbons Says:

    Libraries should also be organizing to reform copyright law. Many libraries no longer have room on their shelves for some classic works, and it would take the sting out of our weeding to at least be able to offer such books in an electronic format. But even out-of-print works by long dead authors are still covered by our crazy copyright laws — thanks to the lobbying of corporations like Disney, who do not want to lose anything to the public domain ever. As librarians, we should be fighting to protect and extend the public domain.

  19. Nicolette Says:

    Please please please do something at ALA (though I cannot go!). At night I am on Questionpoint. I cover something like 89 queues with public and academic libraries coast to coast and growing Growing GROWING is the group of totally pissed off patrons trying to use the ebooks that are featured PROMINENTLY on their libraries’ web pages. Many of these people BOUGHT DEVICES SPECIFICALLY FOR THE PURPOSE OF CHECKING EBOOKS OUT OF THEIR LIBRARIES and things are not working. Sometimes we can make it happen, but so often it is absolutely impossible. So then we have patrons who think we lead them on to make a purchase in tough times which can’t be supported–even if they picked a device that was cited as supported by Overdrive (this is probably helping the Playaway market immensely!)

  20. Bob T Says:

    When I worked in a unit that deal with ebooks and eaudiobooks from a customer service standpoint, it was an incredibly frustrating experience. It was just impossible to give a straight answer to anything. There was no way anyone could learn all the different formats and different rules.

    1.Can you load this on to iPod? “Well, maybe, sort of, kind of,”
    2.Can I read this on a Kindle? “No. Blame Amazon.”
    3. Can I download this at the library? “Only if you brought your own computer.”
    4.I have Mac OS 9. “Sorry… Your call is breaking up.”

  21. Alison P. Says:

    We have the same issue with NetLibrary/Recorded Books. I wonder how many patrons attempt to use the service, have no luck (usually people run into problems with downloading/updating the media player) and we don’t even know about their lack of success?

  22. ahniwa Says:

    I agree with many of the comments above. These vendors (notably OverDrive and NetLibrary) need to first create services that just plain work. After they do that they can worry about DRM.

    In their defense, however, I have to say that the fault is not all theirs. You could equally blame Apple for choosing to create devices that don’t support WMA/WMV formats, and you could equally start putting the pressure on all the hardware vendors that are not creating devices that WILL work with DRMed files.

    Does it make more sense to ask the 2-3 software vendors to accomodate hundreds of hardware vendors (seems impossible to me), or to ask all the hardware vendors to make their gear work with the 2-3 software vendors out there providing these materials?

    That said, even with the best of these devices (the Creative Zen Mozaic works well, for instance, just don’t get the EZ300 model), the interfaces are not as simple and easy as they should be. Right now I think that OverDrive is slightly edging out NetLibrary in terms of ease of use (weird, I know), but it’s still a young market and there is room for growth everywhere. For the people that can get the eaudiobooks to work, they love them, and if you spend some time searching through a library’s digital collection and see how many items are checked out and being used, I think that in itself justifies libraries being in this market, no matter how flawed it may be.

  23. laura k Says:

    This is something I’ve been thinking about A LOT lately, and you’re right, we are not going to be able to solve this on our own. We have to work with publishers and vendors to make them meet our needs. I would absolutely be interested in working with some group on this issue. I’m not super involved with ALA at this point, but I’ll keep my eyes peeled? I don’t even know what channels a person would need to go through to get something like this started…

  24. ahniwa Says:

    I should note (and shamelessly plug) that we recently launched a statewide eaudiobooks project here in WA, and our portal for the project has a number of helpful resources for librarians and library patrons alike.

    It’s tough to keep this up to date right now, though. NetLibrary is in the middle of moving from OCLC to EBSCO, and OverDrive just plain doesn’t want to provide any helpful materials for us to use on the site. That said, there is some good stuff in there.

  25. MB Says:

    Lucky for us academic libraries, there aren’t as many of our users who expect to be able to get e-books or e-audiobooks from our library (as compared to public libraries.) Therefore I have the luxury of not having to try to support or market my state library’s subscription to NetLibrary.

    I’m a technology geek, and even I gave up on trying to use my public library’s NetLibrary subscription to download ebooks (the comic Frank sent the link for was dead-on for my experience.) Why don’t libraries walk away from crappy services until vendors can prove they have a good interface and can support patrons’ technical questions??!

  26. Jeff Scott Says:

    I enjoyed the twitter discussion as well. However, I think too much blame is pushed towards Overdrive when the real culprit are publishes and device manufacturers.

    Overdrive can only offer a tiered system where the really good stuff is for windows, the ok stuff can be burned to a disc, and the really crappy stuff or classics are mp3. That’s publishers not wanting their titles to be pirated. The reality is, they already are, and in an easier way. It’s a better model to have libraries pay for these titles to distribute rather than locking everyone out and those pirating will get them anyway. Let’s talk to publishers working with overdrive and other vendors. Let’s talk to device manufacturers making changes to help. Sony Reader and the nook are compatible, why not others? They think they can control the content.

  27. Sharon Clapp Says:

    Agreed – wholeheartedly! Had a similar experience with Overdrive and my iPhone before I headed on a trip to New Mexico last month. I thought – geez, if I can’t get this figured out and feel frustrated after over an hour of trying, how must our end users (who will give up after minutes, not hours) feel? ALA or a body that big & influential DOES indeed need to band together & hold the publishers’ feet to the fire (embarrass them on national media, if necessary) to make loaning of ebooks (& a better technical process) possible. This is the kind of activism we need to do if we want to retain relevance in people’s lives.

  28. Toby Says:

    You hit the nail on the head, Sarah. I’ve been ranting to anyone and everyone who will even pretend to listen about this issue, because I think it really gets to the heart of where libraries (and reading) is going. DRM is cutting libraries out of the equation for book distribution. eBooks may be a fraction of the industry now, but as they grow, we’ll have less and less that we can effectively offer our patrons. We may be able to purchase items for our collection, but if our users can’t get to them we may as well not have them at all.

    A big part of the issue is also the publishers themselves. In a lot of ways, Overdrive (and other vendors of their ilk) are just middlemen, making products available based on terms negotiated with the book printers. The result of their attempts to please so many different interests is the broken system that frustrates so many people at your library and mine.

    I’d love to get together at ALA and talk about this with more people. I know I’ve got a laundry list of features I’d like to see in my ebook/eaudiobook library.

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  30. Chelsie Says:

    I find the ebook move very interesting as well. I just purchased a Sony eReader as a gift for someone and charged it up beforehand. I thought I would check out how it works and downloading ebooks from Overdrive proved to be a multi-step process, involving authentication of ebooks gallore. Of course, with a Mac, downloading the file Overdrive found their own file to be corrupt. I scratched my head at that. Somehow I figured out that I needed to install Adobe Digital Edition and download Overdrive’s book using that, then I found out I needed a username and password for said program. Next I authenticated my computer, then I found out I couldn’t just put them on the reader. I had to authenticate the device as well! What a long process for getting library ebook on an eReader. This process should be simplified – as a librarian I fear the questions users will inevitably have.

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  34. Shawn F Says:

    Like you, I am responsible for the digital book collections — and troubleshooting problems with them — at my library, and I agree completely; DRM is making digital books much more difficult than it needs to be.
    It’s particularly troubling given the rise in eBook use since the advent of workable eReaders:
    Combine the slow — but arguably steady — decline of print publishing, the total convenience of downloading *purchased* materials, and the lack of a real library voice in the digital book paradigm, and you get the potential for library irrelevance (for public libraries, at any rate)! I’d *love* to see an ALA group to deal with this.

  35. rcn Says:

    Does this post imply that you also empathize with those of us trying to provide eBook support, even though we may know little more than how to reactivate an Overdrive eBook for patrons? Should eBook support continue to be a function of reference librarians? If so, might it also be a function of reference support staff? It seems to me that eBook support often involves more technical skill than reference skill. What do you think?

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  37. Suzanne R. Says:

    I’m certainly with you on this. I posted a cry for attention to DRM a couple of months back . Mine wasn’t so much out of frustration, I’ve actually been getting Overdrive to work for me recently, even on Android. But I was concerned that I thought librarians were getting too caught up in the hype over devices. Focusing on freeing up the content would, hopefully, allow us to be able to meet the needs of users with a multitude of devices now and in the future.

  38. Jessica Says:

    Having also recently switched to an Android phone, I was so excited to learn about the OverDrive application. Then I read the user comments in the Android Market, and I must admit I didn’t even bother installing it. I, too, feel guilty and embarrassed — I feel like I’m reasonably tech-savvy, and if I can’t figure this stuff out, who else is going to be able to? I’ve actually considered an Audible subscription, simply because their platform seems more user-friendly. It just seems like such a shame when I should have access to eAudio for free from the very place in which I work every day.

  39. Len Says:

    I am opening a new high school library, and we are piloting a substantial number of eBook titles for our district, both fiction and non-fiction. The reader platforms I have chosen are all browser-based and display either in HTML or PDF. They work fine on all of the devices I have checked so far (PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad). Since we are a school, we do not allow students to download files out of principle, but we are lobbying to have that restriction removed for our e-content. We have requested and have been assured that we will be able to keep usage statistics, even though nothing will be downloaded. The students will have search and print capability, which will help with nonfiction titles for research.
    Is this perfect? No, but we have to be in the game of eContent before we can call any plays. Walking away from eBooks makes libraries less relevant, and that is certainly not something we need to see right now. The system is indeed flawed, and DRM is a huge part of the problem. I wholeheartedly support a group dedicated to sorting out the mess that eBooks have become in libraries, and am more than willing to chime in on behalf of K-12 libraries.

  40. Sarah Houghton-Jan (Librarian in Black) Says:

    To Frank: Yes, I did mount my SD card…did everything by the book (bad pun).

    To Starbookzz: While solving the problems from the hardware end MIGHT possibly help, it’s not the real answer. It’s not only the DRM encompassing eBooks, but the formats, the restrictions on use, and these things need to be solved by the creators of the files. They can create them to be compatible with any device, any format, any media player, any reader. But they choose not to because they think that’s a good monetary decision. We need to show them that NOT doing so is costing them money, and is a bad monetary decision. Money talks to publishers. Only money.

  41. Sarah Houghton-Jan (Librarian in Black) Says:

    To RCN: eBook support is something that all library staff who serve the public should be familiar with. Whatever system a library has in place for dealing with any questions should be used to deal with eBook and other technical questions as well. But I would never say that any library materials support function should be transferred to support staff so the librarians don’t have to know it. Perhaps support staff can do the support when possible, but the librarians still need to know the collections, know how to provide support, and know how to troubleshoot these troublesome materials. Librarians are the cornerstone of libraries and should always know how to support their collections and their users, in all areas of library services.

  42. Indonesia Librarian's Mobile Blogging Says:

    I have an experience in downloading ebook to my device (phone, pc, etc). Sometimes I find error in showing it on my device. When it happens I try to communicate with its admin via yahoo messenger or email.
    The other side, when I provide digital/ebook facility for library patrons and when they have a problem with downloading or using it on their device I try to provide them an alternative way, such as: second link to download or giving the software for reading kind of ebook (reader).

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  45. Kelly Says:

    I have nothing really productive to add here, except to say, with great emphasis: thank you for this post! As a library school student, I don’t have a large amount of professional experience with collections management (I am currently at a reference desk position), but I have experienced the pain of trying to borrow ebooks and audiobooks from my local library.

    The whole situation of only being able to borrow one digital ‘copy’ at a time, and being put on a waitlist as if there were an actual shortage of materials, strikes me as completely ridiculous. And I agree that it is turning users away from libraries on the digital front. I’m reasonably informed about the DRM issues behind these restrictions and I still shake my fist at the library ebook page — I can’t imagine users will spare us another second of their time.

    I would love to become involved in any discussion over this issue, whether at ALA or online – it looks like nothing is going to change unless we make it happen – the publishers and vendors don’t have any incentives on their own to loosen their deathgrip on digital material rights (even if they go down in flames, re: music industry).

    Thanks for bringing this up and explaining it so succinctly!

  46. Jenny Levine Says:

    Wearing my ALA hat, have you seen the report our Office for Information Technology & Policy (OITP) just issued? – There’s an App for That! Libraries and Mobile Technology: An Introduction to Public Policy Considerations (pdf)? It could be a great foundation document for an ALA working group. I could ask around, but it seems that LITA or the Washington Office would be the best fit for a member-based group to build on that report.

    Also, if you or anyone else wants to hold an impromptu session at Annual, just sign up for some space in the Networking Uncommons ( You can reserve a projector and there’s free wireless in case you want to include virtual participants.

    Wearing my personal hat, great post. :-)


  47. Doug K Says:

    Frank, “In my utopia of eBooks, I see a single format that is device agnostic.” We already have that, it’s a .txt file – I can read the books downloaded from Project Gutenberg on most devices, though have not tried with a Kindle or iSomething. Of course .txt doesn’t allow for DRM. Technically it would be fairly simple to add a checksum to the .txt file, and something to validate it, but that wouldn’t allow for enormous profits, so it probably won’t happen.

    Sarah, you are right – I have a postgrad degree in computer science and a thirty-year career in IT, but have not yet succeeded in reading any eBooks from our local (excellent) public library. They do however have a fine collection of books on cassette and CD. My kids like to listen to these for long car/plane trips: so I rip the CD to MP3, put it on their devices, then remove it after the trip. In this way I honor at least the spirit of public library lending.

  48. Starbookzz Says:

    Kelly, it looks like you’re proposing that book publishers and authors give away their content to whomever wants it, sort of like what newspapers have done. We all know how well that’s working out. The sad fact is that unless publishers and authors can make a living selling what we want–new books–they will stop producing. I think they’re being quite reasonable in agreeing to a library lending model for digital audiobooks and ebooks, even with the hated DRM. Stamping our feet and demanding full compatibility with every device ever made isn’t helpful. Hardware should adapt to the medium, not vice versa. When DVDs came out, we all bought a DVD player.

    Not to be totally in the tank for OverDrive, but they are constantly working to make their stuff play on iPods, etc. Apple could make Macs supprt WMA files, they just refuse to.

    It makes me sad that we can’t appreciate the marvel of downloadable library materials. Thousands of people use them successfully every day.

  49. R. Woods Says:

    Maybe this was already mentioned, but I think you mean WMA rather than WAV. An entire audiobook in WAV format would take up gigabytes of space.

  50. CarolK Says:

    I was frustrated just reading about your frustration.
    On top of all you said, I’d like to know if there is one device that does it all? E-book, audio book, movie? without all the different set-ups and download of media centers from each vendor?

    I spent over an hour with one patron recently to help him download one audio book title. Though he was successful in the end, I felt that he looked at me with little confidence that I knew what I was doing.

    Send this to the big boys and hope they listen!

  51. Jessica Says:

    Yes, yes, yes! I have been ranting on about this for years and it has seemed for much of that time that I’ve been talking into a black hole. I hate when libraries spend precious collection dollars on digital collections that are unaccessible (whether because of tech, format or just plain too much hassle) to most of their user popular. And for too long all I heard from librarians with these collections is, “we don’t get many complaints.” For the first time I’m seeing a discussion that is actually to heart of critical library issues and for that I am so grateful.

    I’m a dedicated audiobook listener with the double deadly combination of a mac and an ipod. I’m not giving up either, I love them both but I’ve never managed to download a digital audiobook from a library. It takes me less time to copy all the CDs to my computer and transfer to my ipod. Like many others have, if I’m a librarian (and one deeply interested in digital media) and I can’t be bothered, what are patrons going to do? Instead, since I have a little disposable income I’ve had a membership to for many years. All the audiobooks I could ever want, easily downloaded to a mac or windows computer, easily played on pretty much any device out there. The process is so easy and simple I’d rather spend the money for them than deal with the library. Which is sad.

    What I haven’t seen mentioned yet is the new iIngram for ebooks and digital audio. I haven’t talked to any librarians that have it, but speaking to the Ingram vendors at the last couple of conferences it seems that they get around many of these problems as they promise that the audio at least should work just as smoothly as Audible and that they based their service on Audible’s ease of use.

    I would love to see an ALA group get together and talk and work on these issues. We have plenty of influence on the print book market – there is no reason that we can’t extend that to ebooks and digital audio. While I have spoken to the offending vendors at every conference for the last few years (I’m sure the Overdrive people hate to see my coming) one person can’t do all that much, but as a group I think we could finally make something happen.

  52. Scott Says:

    Great post, Sarah!

    Re: an ALA group. At PLA Michael Porter dropped some hints about an effort he’s been trying to get going to try and reach a solution to the many problems that DRM is causing libraries (and our customers). I’m thinking he’d definitely be interested in this kind of effort as well!

  53. Kelly Says:

    Starbookzz, I’m not suggesting that publishers make their ebooks free to all (and you make a good point with the newspaper model). I understand that publishing is a business, and the profit has to come in somewhere, and ownership and control of content is a large part of that. Still, there has to be a middle ground somewhere – it seems like publishers have panicked and are clamping down on everything. Which is understandable, but not helpful to anyone in the long run. Perhaps a subscription model for libraries with far more ‘copies’ and access options, while the publishers can sell ‘exclusive’ versions with bundled media content (videos, music, etc) to make a more interactive experience than just the text….

    I think that there are two sides to this – as you point out, promotion/outreach is a huge issue as well. People are quite successfully and happily borrowing digital materials, and this is great — but most patrons still don’t seem very aware of or enthusiastic about borrowing ebooks. If we are going to have to negotiate these DRM hurdles, we want to help our patrons to make it as painless as possible. To me, that also includes coming up with a satisfactory response to the questions, “How can a digital book be checked out? Isn’t it all just data?” In other words, why are we still treating digital content by many of the same rules and restrictions as physical materials?

  54. Katie Says:

    I’m so glad to see this conversation happening. However, I must emphasize Dan Gibbons’ point regarding copyright law reform. Ebooks are not analogous to physical iterations when it comes to the law. The issues with DRM (bleeping nightmare!), publishers, and library vendors are built upon a system that does not does not consider the First Sale Doctrine as applicable. Hardware and software producers format dominance race does add even more layers of frustration to an already convoluted system. And really, Overdrive/NetLibrary/Ingram/whoever could unveil the most perfect interface known to the library world at ALA, but until publishers cease dictating access restrictions, we are going to have to live with the system. Frankly, I treat patrons not happy with getting the exact digital format they want the same way I treat patrons who want the audiobook version of the new author’s debut that’s only available in mass market paperback: “I’m sorry but the format you’re looking for is not available. Can I help you find a similar book in the format you’re looking for?” Even better, sometimes I can get them the physical iteration of the book, and they’re happy with that. But that’s the readers’ advisor in me.

  55. Shawn F Says:

    I can’t exactly argue with what Starbookzz has to say (commet #48):
    We definitely need people to be able to make a living writing and publishing books; and OverDrive does work pretty hard to improve compatibility — though they still don’t offer direct support to library patrons like NetLibrary does.

    The thing is, it’s just because downloadable library materials ARE such a marvel that we complain about the limitations. I think patrons can understand the necessity for some kind of copyright protections, and even for the limited “copies” of titles (though this one takes a bit more explaining). What they can’t understand is why they have to jump through so many hoops before they can successfully download and play an audiobook from the library, when it only takes two clicks to buy it from Audible.

    Libraries could really use these services to increase their relevance, but the ongoing challenge is convenience. When patrons can buy fairly inexpensive print books conveniently from Amazon, and borrow fairly inexpensive movies conveniently from Netflix, and buy fairly inexpensive downloadable books conveniently from Audible, and do free online research conveniently on Google — but can’t do any of these things “conveniently” at the library — then we suffer. I think that’s the root of our frustration.

  56. Theresa Says:

    I completely agree with this DRM argument. My library only has audiobooks available for download through Ingram Audio. It was very frustrating for me at first because I was having trouble transferring to my iPod. The DRM makes the files so large I had to transfer them to my iPod in chunks because I didn’t have room for the whole thing. I agree that libraries should boycott vendors until they develop software that works the way we want it to. Some libraries are just put up with shoddy software just because its all there is.

  57. Starbookzz Says:

    Shawn F, I can take a little frustration and the dreaded DRM if it means free downloads. Fairly inexpensive translates to a lot of expense in the long run. I hope patrons don’t pick up the attitude that it’s just too difficult to attempt library downloads and that they’re better off buying them. There’s enough of that already without library staff contributing to it.

    Most difficulties are operator error. it’s our job to connect people with our resources, of any kind. Add downloading audiobooks and ebooks to the list of minimum competencies.

  58. Ebooks and Libraries: Like Peanut Butter & Chocolate or Oil & Water? | Librarian by Day Says:

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  59. Wendy Says:

    I’m usually a lurker, but this issue incenses me so much I must comment. Thank you for blogging about it! I’m a public librarian whose personal experience with ebooks, audiobooks, and other downloadable content is also frustrating to the point of non-use. I have ubuntu linux on my home computer, which I love, but I can’t even use Overdrive or other tools where the software requires I have a PC or Mac. I agree that librarians need to be more assertive about negotiating better tools under better terms. Our public–and we as members of that public–deserve better.

  60. Tweets that mention -- Says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by . said: [...]

  61. Shelley Says:

    I don’t know where my work would fall in the territory you’re covering here. But I liked the reference above to “precious dollars.”

  62. Opinion from Librarian in Black: “I Am a Frustrated eBook (Non) User” « ResourceShelf Says:

    [...] (aka Sarah Houghton-Jan) has an excellent (as always) essay about eBooks and eBook readers. We think the title says it all, “I Am a Frustrated eBook (Non) [...]

  63. Lloyd Says:

    Katie is exactly right. Publishers are not going to work with us. They’ve been itching to get out from under the First Sale Doctrine forever, and they see e-books as their chance. The First Sale Doctrine is the reason lending libraries can exist. We need to have Congress extent that into the digital world if libraries are going to continue into the digital world. This should be a priority for the ALA Washington Office.

  64. Starbookzz Says:

    We’re in paradise and we don’t realize it. The less said about lending rights the better. Haven’t you heard about PLR?


    How amounts of payment are determined also varies from country to country. Some pay based on how many times a book has been taken out of a library, others use a simpler system of payment based simply on whether a library owns a book or not.

    The amount of payments is also variable. The amount any one author can receive is never very considerable. In Canada for instance the payment is C$38.30 per book per library, with a maximum of C$2,681 (in 2008) for any one author in a year.

  65. Useful Links (weekly) « Rhondda’s Reflections – wandering around the Web Says:

    [...] I am a frustrated eBook (non) user | Librarian in Black Blog – Sarah Houghton-Jan  [...]

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    [...] under Uncategorized Medan jag satt vid jobbdatorn med flitens LED glatt lysande hittade jag detta blogginlägg från Librarian In Black. I korthet ondgör hon sig över att det finns alldeles för många olika [...]

  67. eBook and eReader News Round-up « LibTech Soup Says:

    [...] There is this one by Sarah Houghton-Jan a San Jose Librarian: [...]

  68. Kristine Says:

    Hi Sarah,

    I’m so glad you wrote this post. I, too, have been frustrated by my eBook (non)experience, and embarrassed by the fact that my librarian skills seem to be no match for the set-up process. I am also frustrated by the lack of ability to simply go into my public library’s catalog and browse eBooks. I have to go into each different software company’s web site, search, and figure out if the title is compatible with my device. I just want to know what’s available as an eBook, and if I can read it on my iPod (which, by the way, is probably the eBook’s least favorite device)!!

  69. the.effing.librarian Says:

    okay, but whose fault is this?

    Libraries need, (well not “need”) want, (well not “want”) are pressured, yeah, that’s it, are pressured into supplying the materials which our customers demand.

    Nobody wants DRM, but we want to deliver e-content. We want to keep you happy. But guess what, you, all of you, the library customers, don’t know what you want.

    Now you might guess that I’m DE-lighted to hear about your ebook problem because I am. I, who has been blogging about the digital divide between the people who use the tech expertly and our library patrons who can barely use the mouse without chipping a tooth, am awestruck and ecstatic to learn that there are even techno-l33t users who feel they are on the wrong side of the digital divide.

    I don’t mean you personally, but I mean all the people in general, including that ahole at who need to be reminded of just how frustrating the internet must be for EVERYONE ELSE.

    … And when I see you in July, please don’t hit me.

  70. Jennifer Says:

    Thank you! I spent 40 minutes last night simply trying to download a popular title via OverDrive onto my ipod at home on my mac. I, too, am a librarian and feel I should be able to handle this with a minimum of difficulty, however, aside from the 1.29 introductory remarks from the OverDrive systsem,I got error messages ‘y nada mas’ on my ipod. It needs to be made much more user-friendly if this format is to continue.

  71. John Gehner Says:

    Last week, while updating an audiobooks bib, I discovered that Overdrive no longer contains ANY of the popular comedy audiobooks and videos that it had available back in September 2009 (when I first created the bib for patrons). We have access to Overdrive via our library system’s subscription (of which we pay a part, like other libraries in the system). I’m not sure when the titles disappeared, or why, and I find this a rather disgusting example of a vendor making changes in our digital collection(s) without informing us. Perhaps Overdrive is sending regular reports on collection changes to the library system … but I doubt it.

  72. Coming Soon: Libraries Will Be Able to Offer Access to Disney Digital Books « ResourceShelf Says:

    [...] couple of weeks ago a Librarian in Black post discussed about the “frustrating” process of downloading ebooks and audiobooks. We also [...]

  73. Frank Skornia Says:

    Doug@47: The issue with .txt files is their lack of formatting. I’ve converted books from Project Gutenberg to read on my Kindle, and I spend a good deal of the book ignoring the odd line breaks and random spaces that get thrown between words. If the story is good enough, I can be patient enough to deal with it (entering the “reader’s trance” as it were). I don’t think many people would put up that though. If eBooks are going to continue gaining traction against paperbooks, they need to simulate the same reading experience, and this includes the formatting that is found in traditionally printed books. Therefore, text, while being an easy format that works on nearly every computing device out there,is not robust enough to deal with the demands of current day readers.

  74. Frustrated by DRM and Libraries « ChasLibraryGirl Says:

    [...] I Am a Frustrated eBook (non)user! I strongly feel that eBooks & eAudioBooks are only used on the margins of our library communities. Not because people don’t have the technology–they do. And not because they don’t want eBooks–they do. But because using library eBooks is such a horrible pain, sometimes impossible, due to the restrictions that DRM places on us (which affects the subsequent issues of licensing & copyright). [...]

  75. deCarabas Says:

    On a related note, the author Charles Stross wrote in his blog in 2007 about the ebook market both as an author and as someone familiar with the technical aspect. Sadly, not much seems to have changed since then.


  76. Starbookzz Says:

    Here’s something a little more current, which I think presages the way ebooks and libraries will relate.

    Just like movies, there’ll be an initial opening (hardcover), then going to rental like DVDs. We won’t be getting hot off the press ebook titles for library circulation, unless government steps in.

    I guess with all of its “faults”, our present situation ala OverDrive and DRM, is going to look great in retrospect.

  77. Charlotte Bohnett Says:

    Midwest Tape linked to your blog post at

  78. Hazy Friday Links « Bib-Laura-graphy Says:

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  79. A Law Librarian Says:

    I think it’s time for a whole new approach to ebooks in general. Namely, publishers need to treat them like print books. Not unlike when Publishers first started offering Cd-rom and electronic subscriptions in addition to existing printed materials, they need to allow ebook versions to be used by more than one person. It makes no sense to treat them differently than print materials. All they have to do is charge the same for the ebook as for the print and then a sliding scale or adjusted fee for each additional “user.” This would be so much better than limiting the use by a DRM to one person, which makes no sense whatsoever. A library or other institutional or enterprise owner of an ebook should have the right to lend out a title to it’s patrons or employees. After all, there is a big “green” movement to reduce the use of paper and energy used to produce paper-based materials.

  80. DRM and Library E-Book Lending « Follow The Reader Says:

    [...] Librarian in Black:  “I strongly feel that eBooks & eAudioBooks are only used on the margins of our library communities.  Not because people don’t have the technology–they do.  And not because they don’t want eBooks–they do.  But because using library eBooks is such a horrible pain, sometimes impossible, due to the restrictions that DRM places on us (which affects the subsequent issues of licensing & copyright). . . . [...]

  81. Barb Says:

    I use Overdrive eAudiobooks and eBooks all the time from my local library, and previously from the NYPL. Downloading to an Sindows XP computer, and currently to ADE and a nook device, previously a PDA using Mobipocket. Never had the kinds of tech problems other librarians seem to have. I guess I am on the fringe.

  82. Niche PLR Says:

    I appreciate with that and it is diplomatic and general.

  83. How to get and read eBooks from the library Says:

    [...] posts by Sarah Houghton-Jan and David Lee King were used to illustrate how frustrating it can be to read ebooks obtained from [...]

  84. new jordons Says:

    I use Overdrive eAudiobooks and eBooks all the time from my local library, and previously from the NYPL. Downloading to an Sindows XP computer, and currently to ADE and a nook device

  85. Frenk Says:

    I agree with your many point t can be really difficult to jump to a specific section in the book, which makes it hard to use for reference materials or for specific research. In addition, Amazon still hasn’t added support for the ePub format, which is unofficially being recognized as the standard format for eBooks. I think once they decide to support this format their reader and various software packages will become the major player in the eBook world.Ebooks

  86. Jan Elkins Says:

    Last time I checked, Amazon was in the business of making money. I don’t think they have any interest in opening their Kindles up for loading library ebooks. And as my sister and all my Kindle folk say, why should I worry about loading the library’s ebooks when I can get Kindle apps for all my devices and they actually work? When Kindle first came out I thought, wouldn’t it be great if Anazon would partner with libraries? I guess the answer is pretty obvious now. Amazon wants book buyers. That is their audience. Maybe one day they will allow it, but right now my quess is that unless libraries can make it profitable for Amazon, there really is no reason they would be interested.

  87. Sarah Says:

    If Amazon would start selling its eBooks to libraries, and letting us loan them out the way we do with the physical items we buy from them & other vendors (& many libraries *do* buy at least some of their stuff through Amazon), then Amazon could make money off of libraries. But right now, their eBook End User License Agreements (EULAs) forbid use by more than one person…strictly limiting libraries’ abilities to lend the same title to multiple people sequentially (not simultaneously). Even though libraries have the right to do this kind of lending with ALL physical items, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act has created no exception for libraries to help us get around EULAs intended for individuals, or copyright restrictions that technically prevent us from using e-content the way we would physical versions of the same titles. It’s ridiculous, and something libraries absolutely must fix in conjunction with legislators and publishers.

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  91. Stop Essay Pain eBook | Says:

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  93. Marti Roszales Says:

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  94. I Gave Up on OverDrive’s Audiobooks | A Ghost of Daisies Says:

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  96. Montessahall Says:

    Please add my voice to those who are frustrated with the Overdrive Media downloading process. Specifically, as others in this discussion thread have highlighted; WMA audio books are not compatible with any portable devices that don’t operate with Windows. I understand there
    are ways to get around this requirement but one would need to have a degree in Computer Science to figure it out! The Overdrive Media and support line are virtually useless. I wish public libraries would stop carrying audio books with WMA. It is frustrating to see books that are presumably available that most people can’t access anyway.

  97. Alyce Says:

    I arrived at your site while looking for some way to get Overdrive to play nice with my walkman via my windows computer. It works maybe one time out of a dozen, and yet I’m stupid enough to keep on trying, like Charlie Brown running at the football. I love audiobooks. I listen to them while I’m cleaning, and when I run out of other options (library is closed, etc.) I end up once again trying to load a book via Overdrive from the library. I get all the way to transferring it to my device and it throws an error code saying that the license isn’t valid or doesn’t exist. I’ve tried reinstalling an embarrassing amount of times, to the point where Overdrive tells me I’m not allowed to download the titles anymore because I’ve used up my allotted downloads. Why does it have to be this hard? Why? I hate it so much! I’ve tried their troubleshooting suggestions, along with many others online and nothing works consistently. I have no idea why it decides to work one time and then not the next dozen or so times. It is so incredibly frustrating.

  98. john, who is incognito and definitely not at work Says:

    Alyce, is it telling you that the license is invalid, revoked, or something else?

    If it’s invalid, staff at your library should be able to reset your download count once you explain that you were having technical difficulties.

  99. rob student user Says:

    you ever notice that kindle on amazon has more ebooks than overdrive lists on say san jose library and you have a very limited selection of books throught overdrive in the way of kindle local library books, say you search for ebooks on a specific subject, if you search amazon ebooks you find it, but at your local library search the same title of ebook will be no where to be found…. all because of drm and amazons prime users maybe??? it seems also that each library is making a different selection of ebooks available to the public, plus I noticed if you say compare a kindle version with the standard epub version, for example; look at the images from the Winnie the pooh ebook , your notice that kindle has improved their ebook images yet the standard epub version has the old style images , non-improved in the graphics, I guess they did that your kindle fire or something, plus the kindle android app, is lacking in say text to speech which is a shame since our androids can use that great ivona text to speech software for ever other ebook reader but the kindle app, since its lacking in text to speech options on android tablets, I guess that so amazon kindle fire tablets will sell better than say any other android based devices of course I don’t own a kindle fire, and I don’t no if they even have text to speech options for ivona voices, which seems like the most real sounding voices on my ebook android reader, I even got android 4.4 rom working on my device but google reader still lacks something I just not sure what its lacking in quality…

  100. user Says:

    Alyce, is it telling you that the license is invalid, revoked, or something else?

    Overdrive from the library limits you to checking out 10 eBooks only…
    after 7 days to 21 days a settings of a eBook it get automatically returned
    if you return the ebook from the sony ebook software say its in epub format , it sends it back and removes it from your 10 ebook limit, of course if you just delete title then you can’t access it again I think, so that way you would get a message saying its invalid, since you are limited to one software reader or one device only per ebook title, if its a kindle file you must remove it from your amazon kindle list online and send it back using your login at amazon with selecting where they keep the titles of ebooks where you can control which is sent to what device…

    most likely your trying to send it either to another device or you delete it without clicking on return to library right click menu option under adobe epub reader 2.0 software on your pc, I am guessing that’s why your getting that message, now you can only wait the days of your overdrive settings if you select 7 days for a ebook or to the maxim days setttings before you can either recheck it out again, I hope this info helps you…

  101. user thinks Idea Says:

    Alyce Says: to the point where Overdrive tells me I’m not allowed to download the titles anymore because I’ve used up my allotted downloads?.

    You may have been target my overdrive, since you download too many times in the past 24 hours, they think your pirating ebooks , or mp3 sounds.. they think your using some sort of dedrm software on the titles, your have to wait till your unblock since overdrive does this to any one who downloads too much within around 24 hours a day.. that my guess. if their not yeting you check anything out your have to just wait awhile for the system to unmark you at a pirate user, of course you may not be pirating software but overdrive thinks that you are doing something bad on your system maybe

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