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pile of books with lock and chain

***Update 12/12/11: Overdrive has posted a response outlining the limitations of availability of certain titles to certain libraries, as well as differing terms of use for certain publishers or titles.  See their response: Ensuring access to the largest eBook catalog for libraries.  In no way do they defend the secretive nature of concealing the effect of these terms from their customers, or answer many of the other questions I had posed to them.  They do, however, tell libraries to contact their Account Specialists with questions and to expect a response within 24 hours.  Perhaps you’ll have better luck with that than I did, as over a week was apparently not enough time for them to even acknowledge that I’d sent an inquiry.***

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from Ryan Claringbole, the Digital Branch Librarian at the Chesapeake Public Library in Virginia.  He asked if I’d ever heard about OverDrive restricting certain libraries’ access to specific publishers’ materials, or, in other words, different libraries seeing different catalogs of eBooks available in the OverDrive Marketplace.

I said “no,” and furrowed my little investigative brow, thinking something glitchy was probably happening with the OverDrive Marketplace.  I asked him to give me specifics and Ryan came through in spades–comparing the limited results found in his Marketplace to titles perfectly publicly visible in other libraries’ online collections, which I then compared to my library’s Marketplace and holdings.  I then called several other libraries and confirmed the weirdness and differences that Ryan and I were seeing.  Ryan discovered something that I have never heard discussed by OverDrive or by participating OverDrive libraries.

OverDrive has different catalogs of eBooks in the OverDrive Marketplace for different libraries.  We’re not all seeing the same title or author selections.

How many OverDrive customers knew that?  How many libraries who have been given the restricted catalogs were ever informed that this is what was happening, or why?  How many of you are right this second logging into your OverDrive Marketplace to check?

This is completely indefensible bullshit.  I am not easily shocked by corporate greed and unethical behavior, but this business practice shocked me.  Shame on you OverDrive.

Instead of trying to explain all of this second-hand, I invited Ryan to tell his story directly.  Below is what he sent me, followed by screenshots from his library’s Marketplace and my library’s Marketplace for three different popular authors. Hint: They’re not the same.

Ryan’s story

The Chesapeake Public Library partnered with OverDrive in the summer of 2011. We were very excited about increasing our eBook access with the largest provider of eBooks for public libraries. We had been in partnership with NetLibrary/EBSCO eBooks for a couple years, but the selection they had was geared more towards technical non-fiction eBooks. OverDrive was touting the best selection of fiction and popular non-fiction eBooks.

We decided to divide up the selection process by Fiction, Non-Fiction, Teens and Children. The selectors began placing orders immediately with the $9,000 collection credit that OverDrive gave if we signed up. The selectors came to me stating that they were surprised that there wasn’t a better selection of items. We at first thought that this was more of an eBook/publisher issue, that the items, specifically newer ones, were not available in digital format right away. But then the selectors started checking out our neighboring city, Virginia Beach, OverDrive site. The selectors contacted me saying that Virginia Beach had items available to checkout and download on their OverDrive site that was not showing up in our OverDrive Marketplace.

I contacted our liaison at OverDrive to inquire why certain items were showing up on other library’s OverDrive sites, but not showing up in our Marketplace. OverDrive wasn’t sure at first, but then informed me it had to do with our non-resident cards. Since the Chesapeake Public Library System allows reciprocal cards and purchased full service cards for patrons outside of the City, certain publishers won’t allow access to their eBooks at all, according to OverDrive. And by “no access” it means that those items won’t show up in our Marketplace.

I asked a legal representative for OverDrive about the full service cards, as they are purchased by patrons for an annual non-refundable fee of $35.00. The legal rep. said that, unfortunately, even the paid full service cards violate this restriction and they would be blocked as well.

Basically the Chesapeake Public Library System has two options when using OverDrive:

  1. We can keep everything as it is and have access to a limited amount of items. The cost of the product does not accurately reflect what we have access to.
  2. We can ask OverDrive to restrict access to the OverDrive site by a specific field in the accounts. This would mean that patrons that live outside the City do not have access. The Chesapeake area is part of Hampton Roads, a large metropolitan area that has many commuters, and it is also on the North Carolina border, meaning we get many patrons from NC. I’m not sure of the statistic, but a large slice of our patron pie comes from outside the City.

Since I was not originally on the committee that went through and signed the contract with OverDrive I asked to see a copy of our contract to see where it specifically is stated that we cannot give access to OverDrive to patrons that are outside the City. I did not find anything until near the very end:

Access to the Application Services shall be limited to those patrons of the Library that have the required relation to the Library to receive a library card (“Authorized Patrons”). Library shall not provide access to the Application Services to any end users who are not Authorized Patrons. Authorized Patrons shall be defined as individuals who can provide proof of residency, employment, or enrollment in school or similar institution in the Library’s service area. Online library card applications and issuance, with or without any fees, that provide access to the Application Services without proof of the required library relation (as referenced in the foregoing sentence) shall not be permitted. OverDrive reserves the right to immediately terminate this Agreement if Library provides access to the Application Services to end users who are not Authorized Patrons.

In discussing this with other librarians within the system, one pointed out that technically the “library service area” is not defined in the contract, and we don’t define it as within the City limits. By definition, the library service area could be anywhere in the country if they decide to purchase a full service card. Our Director asked the OverDrive legal representative about this and he said that they (OverDrive) define it as the area that provides the majority of funding to the library system. In our case, it’s the City.

I have asked many librarians if they know if their systems are under the same restrictions with OverDrive. I have yet to find one that has even heard of such a restriction. I find this restriction misleading and poorly worded in the contract, and I find it baffling that the items that are restricted won’t even show up in the Marketplace.

But even if the restriction is poorly worded and not pointed out, even if the items are completely hidden in the Marketplace, why this library system has been singled out is the one question I’d like answered. And are any more libraries going to be victims of this restriction?

Sample of Authors Affected with Screenshots

[Update: Commenter Doug pointed out that Ryan had limited his results to eBooks only while I had not, which was a good point. I have updated the screenshots as a result. The differences in availability still apply, but the screenshots are more comparable now. Thanks Doug!]

1) Results for Kathryn Stockett

Kathryn Stockett results from Ryan's library

Kathryn Stockett results from Ryan's library










Kathryn Stockett results from Sarah's library

2) Results for Stieg Larsson 

Stieg Larsson results from Ryan's library

Stieg Larsson results from Ryan's library

Stieg Larsson results from Sarah's library

Stieg Larsson results from Sarah's library

3) Results for Janet Evanovich

Janet Evanovich results from Ryan's library

Janet Evanovich results from Ryan's library

Janet Evanovich results from Sarah's library

Janet Evanovich results from Sarah's library

What is happening?

In short, depending on the library card policies of your library and how you’ve set up authentication (e.g. do you somehow limit either cards or authentication to only people in “your jurisdiction”) you will see different publishers and titles available in your OverDrive Marketplace.  I’ll tell you one thing…this limitation is definitely not specifically mentioned in your contracts.  The closest you’ll get is the section Ryan quoted above.  There is pretty much zero information in the standard OverDrive contract about the content itself–it’s all about the platform.  There are no publisher guarantees, or guarantees of availability.  In fact, the contracts (depending on which version your library signed) say something along the lines of “OverDrive can add and remove content at will.”

One author in our brief list of three samples is from Putnam, one from Random House, and one from Knopf (a Random House imprint).  We were also able to track a few additional authors with problems.  But I’m wondering now which publishers exactly are affected.  Actually, I’m left wondering a lot of things because OverDrive hasn’t ever made this information available to its customer libraries.

Basically, OverDrive can and has created agreements with publishers that allow them to prohibit certain libraries’ ability to license their titles.  Except OverDrive never tells libraries this is happening.  The only way we’d know is by librarians like Ryan stumbling over inconsistencies in title availability and investigating.

And I hate to call attention to this, but nearly every library in California allows any California resident to get a library card–which means that unless every single California customer is authenticating based on zip code or another location-specific field in the patron record (which I know they’re not), then pretty much the whole state of California should be getting the limited catalog (according to what OverDrive’s legal representative told Ryan).

OverDrive has sold their “selection of digital titles” to libraries as though everyone is seeing the same thing, as though access is equitable across the board.  Pieces started to fall together, though, as I remember some librarians complaining bitterly about how horrible the selection is in OverDrive and others looking at them incredulously and saying they thought it was fine. Now we know why different people had different impressions of the selection of materials–because the selection of materials was not the same from library to library.

Why would OverDrive do this?

Money.  Why else?  They’re a for-profit company.  I’m guessing here, but I would venture that either OverDrive was told by publishers it had to agree to these limiting terms in order to get any of that publisher’s content for any of its customers and/or OverDrive got more money from these publishers if they put that limitation in place.  Now here’s the danger–how many more publishers are going to follow suit?

Why wouldn’t they tell us? Because, as usual, companies make risk calculations and decide in favor of obscuring facts about their services rather than being open and transparent about them with their customers.  The calculated risk here was whether anyone would figure out that there were differences in our catalogs of available eBooks, and if so, if we shushy-quiet-bound-librarians would be loud about it or do anything substantive that would cost them money.  And just as with the Amazon and user privacy issue with OverDrive–we’re going to start getting loud, aren’t we?

As for doing something about it, if you take the Kindle privacy violations and combine them with this news–anybody tempted to cancel their library’s OverDrive contract?  I know I am.  And if you’re looking at renewing or signing a new contract with OverDrive, watch out.  Look for the clause Ryan cited in your contract and be sure to ask your sales representative point blank whether or not your access to the catalog is a full or restricted version and get a response in writing.

Attempts to get OverDrive’s Comments

It is critical to note that I contacted three different OverDrive staff (Director of Marketing, our local collections rep, and our regional sales manager) and gave them ample time to respond to the issue, asking them specific questions to help sort the mess out in case something was just glitchy, or in case they wanted to comment on the reasons for these differences.  I never received even an acknowledgement of my emails.  Bad form, fellas.


  • How many different versions of your catalog of materials are there?
  • Are some publishers not willing to license content to certain types/sizes of libraries?
  • What is the limitation based on?
  • Is this information shared with OverDrive clients during the contract negotiations?
  • Is the limitation on selection noted in the contracts with affected libraries?
  • What publishers/authors/titles does this apply to?
  • Does OverDrive have a list of affected library clients?

I once more call on OverDrive for a formal statement.  Your customers are impatiently tapping their feet, and that may lead to those feet moving from tapping to marching into an Occupy OverDrive movement if you’re not careful.  Your corporate headquarters are in Suite N of the Valley Tech Center, at 8555 Sweet Valley Drive, in Cleveland, Ohio, right? I don’t particularly want to visit Cleveland in December, but hey…worthy causes and all that.

Ryan Claringbole is a rock star

I want to congratulate Ryan Claringbole on singlehandedly making a difference in libraries and revealing deceptive corporate practices for a company that has a virtual monopoly on popular eBook distribution in libraries.  Ryan broke this story wide open and I want to commend him for being a stellar library professional and noticing something the rest of us did not, and for having the courage to come out publicly about what he found.  Ryan, I salute you sir.

What you can do

Finally, I ask all of you library users and library staff to help us figure out what’s happening.  You can do three things:

  1. Check your own OverDrive Marketplace and see what results you turn up for these three authors.  What are you seeing?  Then check your own contracts to see if this limitation is in your contract, and talk to whoever negotiated and signed it to see if they understood what it meant and/or were possibly told they were getting a limited catalog of materials to choose from.
  2. Post your findings in the comments section of this blog post.
  3. Tell your OverDrive rep what you think, whatever that may be.  And just in case anyone wants to take that extra step to contact Corporate Headquarters, always a good thing to do when you feel strongly about something, here’s their phone number: (216) 573-6886. And why not go old school and also send a fax? (216) 573-6888.  Who knows? Print might get their attention better.  How ironic would that be?

“OverDrive Has Different eBook Catalogs for Different Libraries”

  1. Ryan Says:

    @Rebecca – Rebecca, just so you know I’ve just encountered that 9 item checkout/7 day limit. I am talking with OverDrive in a couple days and will ask them specifically about this issue.

  2. John Says:

    If you are a private company with a subscription service, you have to have some way to relegate access to your product. What incentive would libraries in neighboring areas have to pay for Overdrive if they could just redirect them to the next library down the road who already pays for the service? There has to be a physical limitation somewhere, and limiting access by residency is one of the few ways it can be done.

  3. Ryan Says:

    @John – I agree that a private company cannot be completely open and restrictions are necessary to a point. What I am having trouble with specifically is that they are not detailing what their restrictions are to their customers. I believe good business practice is to openly show what your services and restrictions are before having the customer sign the contract, not after, or, in their case, not even telling them until it is discovered.

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  5. DT Says:

    @John – that might be a reasonable explanation if this restriction were coming from Overdrive, but they are at pains to say that it is *not* their policy, but one imposed by the publishers.

    I’m a loss to understand how publishers can claim an interest in where library patrons live, or why they think doing so is a benefit to them. Just the opposite, I’d say limiting access to legitimate sources for books only furthers piracy. The number of books a consumer is interested in reading–or at least having a glance through–is inevitably going to be smaller than the number they’re actually interested in owning. Libraries fill that gap, and users who are willing to go to the trouble to get multiple cards, or even pay for access to libraries, should be cultivated by publishers. They are likely the high-volume consumers interested in (or whose knowledge is only limited to) legitimate copies. They’re *more* likely to pay to own copies of the books they want to keep.

    On the other hand, if you throw up roadblocks and make it difficult for them to access the various books they have a passing interest in checking out–things they were hardly likely to bother paying for in the first place–you drive them to investigate other sources. And once they learn their way around the world of book piracy, that’s knowledge that can’t be unlearned. No hold lines, no return dates, no cost? Heck, at that point why even go back to libraries let alone bookstores. Congratulations, your restrictive policies have just helped to create another pirate.

  6. DT Says:

    “The number of books a consumer is interested in reading–or at least having a glance through–is inevitably going to be smaller than the number they’re actually interested in owning.”

    rather, “inevitably going to be larger”

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    […] branch librarian at the Chesapeake Public Library in Virginia, has raised a question (via the Librarian in Black blog) whether different libraries see different catalogs of ebooks available in the OverDrive […]

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    […] Who Reads A Lot have issue with is that apparently, Overdrive is not an equal opportunity lender. Librarian in Black, a blog that I follow, posted about how not every library has the same access to all the books […]

  11. Margaret Says:

    I’d be very interested to know if there are efforts underway to take this issue to Congress or the courts? Is ALA or any state library association pursuing legislation to address what Noutoupian librarian raises in comment #40? Basically, publishers are allowed to charge a different price to an individual vs. a library, and limit digital access to libraries, It seems obvious that a corporation is not the same as an individual, but the Courts have ruled otherwise; why can’t we use this in our favor to get a ruling that publishers have to treat libraries like individuals?

    Has this issue been tackled in other countries?

    I appreciate you uncovering this issue and raising awareness. Now, what do we DO about it?

  12. I just started using Overdrive to order e-books... Says:

    and I agree that the Overdrive “Marketplace” has a clunky and limiting search capabilities. HOWEVER, I think some very broad generalizations are being made about available content and a lot of the specifics are not being addressed.

    Something that I noticed today:

    Content that our Overdrive consortium owns and is available via E-media Library is not available in the Marketplace for Advantage purchases.

    Here’s Why: Publishers change their policies/relationships with Overdrive. AND While we do not lose access to titles that we had previously licensed, and we can purchase additional copies of titles we already had as Advantage titles, we cannot purchase an Advantage copy if we didn’t already have one – therefore it is not in the Marketplace. This is why “The Help” and Kathryn Stockett searches are yielding strange results. Amy Einhorn Books (publisher of “The Help”) is an imprint of Penguin, which has severed their relationship with Overdrive. SO, if your library did not purchase an Advantage copy of the book before the relationship with Penguin was severed, you can’t buy one. This is as a result of the PUBLISHER’s decision, not Overdrive limiting your selections for no reason.

    Doug points out a related matter much earlier in the discussion. I feel like a lot of the inconsistencies being pointed out can be attributed to situations that arise from publishers and their relationships with Overdrive, and thusly, Overdrive’s limitations on libraries.

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  14. Bob Says:

    The info about non-resident card holders and limitations on content access, here and on the linked-to document from Overdrive, were helpful. Thanks for the post. Rock on.

  15. Morris Brown Says:

    In a world that’s rapidly advancing with technology weaving in and outer of our lives, my question, comment or complaint is simple. I am a resident of the the Hampton main library in Hampton, Va and when I try to use the overdrive system for borrowing an ebook, I run into a wall because I can’t. The reason why I can’t is because the available libraries that offer the overdrive library system do not accept my libarary card because they (the neighboring libraries) are of a different county. How can we get the overdrive system in Hampton, va to avoid this dilemma? Thank you for your time and patience in resolving this matter.

  16. Sarah Says:

    To get OverDrive at your library, you would need to ask the library to pay for a yearly subscription to the service as well as spend additional dollars to obtain content (eBooks and eAudioBooks). You could go to the library’s board or commission meeting (every library has a governance body like this of some sort). You could speak to the director, or the head of collections/acquisitions. Try making the suggestion, and asking why they don’t have it yet. It’s possible that it’s too expensive for their budget, or that they don’t think it’s a good service for the dollars spent.

  17. Aaron Says:

    Well written contracts include definitions and clarifications. Otherwise companies leave themselves open to lawsuits over misrepresentation and matters of interpretation. It happens too often in the corporate world.

    >>Overdrive states this succintly in their blog post:
    >>“Each publisher or author has the ability, on a title-by-title basis, to set the permissions, copyright protection settings, price, and other rules associated with digital lending of their eBook or other digital content.”

    A blog post is not a contract. That information need to be included in the contract.

  18. Pamela bourque Says:

    I shared the site with my local library, and dearly pray and hope someone will end the monopoly! We need more people with a heart like Ben Franklin’s, God rest his soul, (but I wouldn’t be averse to his haunting a few key people at overdrive.)

    Our digital library encompasses the entire southwestern region of louisiana, after all, there is one major city, lake charles, and hundreds of small towns. My screen shots had more of some, and less of others, for instance 11 for janet.
    And beyond the ridiculous in the amount of holds on popular books one has to wait through until it’s your turn. Don’t get me started on the wait for an interlibrary loan…..

  19. Pamela bourque Says:

    what I really don’t get is how it’s the publishers business once the sale is made, as to who the hell can read it.( I guess they don’t realize most every book bought is loaned to various friends and relatives)

    DT, you make a great point. I’m certain I’m not the only frustrated voracious reader wishing they could a way around this….

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  21. Dawn Says:

    Pamela, I totally agree with you on this one. In my family, when one of us buys a printed book, it goes through the whole family. I save my books from one child to the next. Is this somehow illegal now? The book was purchased, publisher and author paid with US Dollars. At the point of sale, the item becomes the buyers own property, to do with as they wish. But it seems when it comes to ebooks, we are only allowed to read them on ONE reader, or buy many different forms of it for all the different readers. That is like telling me I can only read it in the kitchen, but it is illegal to read it on the beach.

    I firmly believe that Libraries, which are suffering from funding costs already, should be able to lend their books, ebooks, etc to all their patrons. This may be the only way some can even get their hands on a book. Sometimes I think there are those so money hungry, that they bite off the hand that feeds them. I think it is sad that Libraries are being limited, and scary too, the more the Libraries are limited, the more they will be a dying breed.

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  23. DAlma Says:

    Interesting. I’ve had two library cards for a few years — one for Scottsdale, AZ and one for San Francisco, CA — and if I can’t find a book at one overdrive catelog, I switch to the other. They are always different results, including different numbers of copies, different books on record, and different numbers of people on the waitlist. I’ve always assumed this was just because each library system purchased different books.

  24. Liya Cornelius Says:

    I just came across your blog while searching for this very exact topic. I’m a resident of California and I have library cards for San Francisco City and County, Sacramento County, Orange County, and now Folsom which is in Sacramento County but has a different Overdrive catalog. I was going to make a little bucket list project out of getting a library card for every county in CA, but now I realize that Overdrive has different catologs combining some less populated counties and breaking out cities from counties, etc (i.e. Oakland and Berkeley are cities next to each other and are both in Alameda County, but all three have different Overdrive catalogs). They certainly have created quite the racket for themselves.

  25. Dutt Says:

    In today’s world when more kids and grown ups are watching tv and playing video games, there are a few folks like us who love to read books and it is frustrating that overdrive is restricting our access to ebooks. I have personally experienced this. I enjoy reading Harlequin Presents series of books and the selection available to San Mateo county is less than a dozen where as the members of San Francisco public libraries have access to way more books. I don’t mind if overdrive charges me extra on a monthly basis but they should allow us access to more books. Very frustrating.

  26. hello Says:

    Does anyone know is there a way to be notified of any of the following. OD seems a closed shop
    – new authors added to catalogue this month
    – new titles of existing authors added to catalogue this month
    – new publishers added to catalogue this month
    I have been exploring the differences and so far it appears libraries are grouped into segments. I dont know if these segments indicate more influence to OD or why they are chosen. Not sure of the criteria. But i was trying to get clear on the segments.
    Acces to = their clientele can recommend books into their local library.

    segment A – access to Simon Schuster bundle (e.g. Atria, Touchstone, Henry Holt, Houghton Miffen, Scribner, Free Press, Farrar, t Martins). This bundle is only recenty been available. I think in last 3 months some time. – 2 libraries found with this access
    segment B – no access to SSbundle. Access to Penguin GUS. I think this was annouced by OD mid Sept 2013. – >10 libraries found
    segment C – no access to SSbundle. Access to McGraw. Access to Harper – 2 libraries found
    segement D – the main general catalogue. no access to SS bundle. no access to McGraw, Harper.

    but then there are many publishers in the OD catalgoue, that I cannot find libraries have access to.
    hodder & stoughton
    harvard business
    addison-wesley (pearson education)

    and these publishers have books in catalogue, but i cannot find any library with access to and new books
    wharton school publishing
    basic books
    faber and faber
    create space

    any difference experience, please lmk

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

    Hello: Penguin eBooks have been available through OverDrive since September 2013. Libraries may or may not buy any of the titles because they are metered access titles (libraries have to repurchase them after a certain number of downloads) and possibly also because, up till about a week ago, Penguin was (stupidly, I would say, and pettily) refusing to send Kindle eBooks to Kindle apps through OverDrive, allowing them only on actual Kindle devices and only on those devices through sideloading via USB (as opposed to sending them wirelessly, like every other Kindle-format eBook). Penguin has finally lifted that restriction.

    McGraw-Hill titles only became available in OverDrive in late November 2013. They focus more on professional and educational titles than on popular titles, so that may explain why you’re not seeing them much in various library collections, especially if you’re focusing on public libraries.

    As for libraries’ influence with OverDrive, yes, there is some variance, but I’ve seen that mostly in which libraries get to be part of pilot programs (like, e.g. the Simon & Schuster offerings which NYPL and Cleveland have).

  28. Mimo Says:

    My goodness, this is interesting stuff.
    I’m in Australia, I use overdrive and my public library for audio books. my library didn’t have some that I wanted, so I explored others. I used Sue Grafton for my search and found that several libraries with Overdrive had the volumes I wanted and also allowed interstate ( or non resident) membership. Also, a couple of American libraries allow membership for a fee. Great news!
    However …… I noticed the Australian libraries, although allowing membership, will not allow access to ebooks and audio books from those not living in their area.
    Now, before sending off my money to The Philadelphia Free Library or the Public Library of New Orleans, I need to find out if, after paying money, I will be allowed acces to e books and audio books.
    I would have thought that paying subscribers would be welcome extra income for any library!

  29. Sarah Says:

    Licensing contracts with the companies who provide libraries with eBooks (OverDrive, 3M, Baker & Taylor, etc.) explicitly prohibit non-residents from gaining access. They require us to validate not only that the library card is current, but that the person resides in our jurisdiction. Therefore, unless the library where you live offers eBooks, you won’t be able to access a library eBook collection.

  30. Ashley Says:

    Although this article is from quite a few years ago, a coworker and I are still encountering this issue. What we’ve learned is that if your library is in a consortium then you can not have access to certain titles but if your library runs Overdrive themselves then you get all of the titles you want. According to our consortium leader, the publisher Hatchet does not sell to consortium. But what about the other publishers? Not only is this extremely disheartening but it also shows that money talks and that no one cares about libraries.

  31. Sarah Says:

    People care about libraries, but those people aren’t necessarily the vendors and publishers. If you’re aware that you’re seeing a partial catalog from OverDrive, I encourage you to ask to see “what you’re not seeing.” They have the ability to show you this information…so you might not be able to license it still, but at least you can see what you’re getting screwed out of. I am hopeful that we are still in a tough transition time that will get sorted out in our lifetimes.

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