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The library eBook scene, indeed the eBook scene for consumers too, is ever-changing and unpredictable.  Any library trying to plan more than one year out for eBooks is playing a losing game.  Don’t sign contracts for more than a year and don’t invest huge amounts of time in what might be dying models.

For the most part, right now libraries feel like we have two choices for eBooks:

  1. paying beaucoup bucks for high-demand eBooks to third-party aggregator companies like Overdrive and 3M (for more on for-profit companies’ recent eBooks offerings, see David Lee King’s excellent post on what he saw at ALA Annual)
  2. pointing users to the many free, lower-demand eBooks out on the web on sites like Project Gutenberg or Librivox

But there is a third choice, and it’s one that I think can change the landscape of library eBooks forever…and for the better.

Open Library is a project from the Internet Archive, a non-profit that has given us amazing web content like the Wayback Machine (historical snapshots of websites), the Audio Archive, the Moving Image Archive, and the Software Archive.  The Internet Archive is also technically a registered library, and they have long collaborated with local libraries for services and collections.  IA is based in San Francisco and I was lucky enough a couple of months ago to visit the headquarters for a stunning tour that included the “hands-down-most-awesome server room ever” and the most efficient book scanning workflow I’ve ever seen.

And that book scanning project has yielded Open Library.  Open Library is a digital library built partially from paper books from physical libraries.  Anyone can access the 1,000,000+ free eBooks through their website.  But wait, there’s more!  A new project with 1,000+ currently participating libraries, including mine, is the Lending Library, a swiftly growing collection of 100,000+ eBooks from the 20th century, including many popular titles (though not those from the most recent 15 years or so).  Did I mention that it’s currently 100% free for your library to participate in the Lending Library?  All you have to do is send at least one paper book to the IA for digitization.  That’s it.

Users can access the entire collection in-library or from home with remote access, as long as you set up authentication on your end through EZ Proxy, WAM, etc.  Books are added two primary ways: they are scanned in from discarded copies sent to the IA from member libraries -or- IA has arranged a lending agreement directly with the publishers.  Books do operate on a one-user/one-copy model, in keeping with copyright holder rights.

Here’s what it’s like on the user’s end: You click on the link from your library’s website, as you would for any other eBook collection, and log in with your library credentials.  Now Open Library knows you can borrow from the Lending Library.  If you access from inside the library, you will see this message alerting you that you have access to even more eBooks.

Browse or search for a book, then choose whether you want to borrow an “in-browser” version (which you view using the super smooth Internet Archive’s BookReader web app) or downloadable formats like PDF, ePub, Daisy, plain text, and Kindle.  One thing I really like is how all the various editions of a work are aggregated into one record.  Here’s what you see when you go to the “digital holdings” for the Scarlet Letter.

Each person can borrow up to 5 eBooks at a time for up to 2 weeks.  You can read these eBooks on the device of your choice: Mac or PC, laptop or desktop, tablet or smart phone. Read and smile: NO COMPATIBILITY ISSUES!

From Open Library’s About page:

One web page for every book ever published. It’s a lofty but achievable goal.

To build Open Library, we need hundreds of millions of book records, a wiki interface, and lots of people who are willing to contribute their time and effort to building the site.

To date, we have gathered over 20 million records from a variety of large catalogs as well as single contributions, with more on the way.

Open Library is an open project: the software is open, the data are open, the documentation is open, and we welcome your contribution. Whether you fix a typo, add a book, or write a widget–it’s all welcome. We have a small team of fantastic programmers who have accomplished a lot, but we can’t do it alone!

I <3 Open Library.  And I don’t <3 a lot of things.  So you know it must be amazing.  Here are some of the reasons that I think Open Library is a successful future model for library eBooks:

  • Open Library is an eBook library built by libraries, with library collections, for libraries.
  • A printed book in the public domain that is currently accessible to only one library’s users in a physical format gets turned into a digital book accessible to all participating library’s users. This is the ultimate in resource sharing.
  • The Internet Archive is a non-profit organization, so if they can arrange more contracts with publishers directly the cost to libraries will necessarily be less than it would be with the for-profit companies we’ve been dealing with so far.
  • It’s open: the code, the collection, everything.
  • Reading is a smooth, device-neutral user experience.
  • This solves the “last copy” syndrome in many libraries where we might hold on to an outdated printed item if it’s the last one in our catalog.  Send your last copies to the Internet Archive and share with other libraries while freeing up valuable shelf space at the same time.

Freaking awesome, period.

Libraries interested in partnering in this program should email [email protected].  You can read more about the technology behind the project and the librarianship that built this collection as well.  And to learn more as things develop, keep track of what’s new with the Open Library through their blog.

Mark my words.  This is the future of eBooks for libraries.

“Open Library offers libraries a third choice for eBooks”

  1. Jeff Scott Says:

    I think the problem with free ebook sites is that they don’t contain recent known works. I can get classics from many different sources and from what I can tell so far, that’s all there is. If I want to have an e-book services that provides current and popular literature, I have to go with the for-profits. Is there any way around that right now?

  2. Sarah Says:

    Open Library does offer more recent and popular titles through the Lending Library, up through the 90s anyway (they’re still tip-toeing around copyright law). I encourage you to check it out and ask them for more detail on their future plans for acquiring popular content.

    Which brings up the problem for all of us trying to get popular materials online — copyright. Publishers are still, after decades, nervous about digital content. So they do two things: charge an arm and a leg for it and load it up with digital rights management. There is no way around copyright law; therefore there is no way around paying for popular content. And I’m not against paying for content at all — we should pay for it. It took effort to create. But…and this is a big but…the way publishers are doing it right now is just plain *wrong.* The authors aren’t making much off of digital content but the publishers are making huge profits off of digital content, much more so than off of print content.

    Because Open Library is focusing on the holy trinity of content (all the free classic stuff, the grey-area stuff from the last 100 years, and the new popular titles) I think they have the magic equation that will work for libraries and library users. Keep your eye on them.

  3. Jeff Scott Says:

    It really doesn’t appear to have new popular titles. It’s nice to have all this free content in one area that’s easier to access, but it competes more with Project Gutenberg than it does Overdrive or other for-profit ebook services. I agree, it would be nice to free up modern literature from the shackles of DRM and some obtuse publishers, but the for-profits are a lot closer than this is.

  4. Chad Mairn Says:

    I agree! This initiative is awesome. I just reached out to a few library organizations in Florida to see if they are interested in participating as a group to help expand Open Library’s lending collection. Great post, by the way. I’ll share it with my network for sure.

  5. John Klima Says:

    Jeff, the new popular titles are not part of its 1,000,000+ free eBooks, but part of its 100,000+ eBooks that they’re building in conjunction with libraries’ help. Those are separate collections. If your library signs up, sends in one modern book for them to scan, you’ll get access to the more recent books. The modern books are NOT part of the free eBooks that they offer to anyone and everyone.

    Sarah, it seemed to me in the talks I’ve had with them that the collection is free for now, but that wouldn’t be true forever. And that they don’t know what it will cost in the future as that cost is tied up in how many libraries sign up for the program now. This uncertainty in cost means I’m not able to convince my library to take part.

  6. Josh Petrusa Says:

    I suppose the other reason to bet on Open Library (besides combining the old, out of copyright stuff with newer titles contributed by partner libraries) is that for those who are suspicious of such things, they’re not Google. Whichever way the courts end up deciding, Google will have its own plan for ebooks and Open Library looks like it has the right model to be a potentially more library-friendly competitor.

    I definitely agree with Sarah that other great aspect is the space-clearing one. For many libraries this may be a very palatable way to move out low use older items and still have them in a reliable cloud space that provides a variety of formats. But, there’s that cost thing.

  7. Diana Moore Says:

    This is a wonderful concept that I am watching closely. I am a firm believer that the publishing industry (particularly academic publishing) must change, and that will most likely be forced to happen with more grassroots type open source projects like this. We shall certainly see! These are interesting times in which we live…

  8. Notable | The Digital Immigrant Says:

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  10. Julie Quesnell Says:

    I like this as an alternative in some ways but….it’s not set up for school libraries. I have K-8 libraries and would need to somehow create lists they could access. Not all books in openlibrary are appropriate for them. I do like the nonfiction books offered because that is where I lack in the libraries. I’m very torn about what to do. I want ebooks available to students, especially with the ability to lend multiple copies at once but of course I lack the $$. Interestingly I spoke with Overdrive & because of copyright laws I cannot lend out ereaders to students & allow students to download from Overdrive. They can only download to their own ereaders. This makes no sense to me!! There again, publishers need to get with the program!

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  13. Roz Kutler Says:

    Open Library just came through with the text book a Community College asked for. Awesome. Hope we get more of the same. Always on reserve; can’t afford to even try to meet the need.

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  17. rudy wilson Says:

    I have signed up with OPEN LIBRARY,…sounds good…how do u let ppl know yr site exists??? Marketing is the problem…..and at one pt you asked me for the ‘weight’ of the book!!!!! What was that about??????? thank you RW

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