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.

I am honored that this website was named the Salem Press Library Blog Award for the Best General Interest Blog.  It means a lot to me that my peers think that what I write is worth reading. It also makes me just a tad nervous and self-conscious.  No pressure to perform, right?  That being said, it’s always fun to say “Hey, I won something!”  And apparently I get a plaque, which is kinda cool.

There were some other truly amazing nominees and award winners.  Go to the Salem Press site for a complete list.  There are so many smart people writing in our profession and their words and ideas are what inspire me too.

Librarian in Black has really changed in the 8 years since I started the site (OMG, has it been that long?!?!?).  It started as a near-Twitter-esque site sharing 3-5 new websites, articles, or tools every day.  Then it became a somewhat longer form site, where I shared fewer new finds in more detail.  And, of late, it’s become more of a professional pulpit from which I’ve stated my core professional values, looked to the future of libraries, and tried to effect change where I feel it’s needed most.  As many have pointed out, the posts I write that seem to get the best and most responses are those where I’m rather upset about something.  Apparently, I am good at, errrr, what?  Railing?  Being grouchy?  Calling bullshit on people?  Complaining?  Being pissed off at injustice?  I don’t know.  Call it what you will.  But I love writing, and now that I have a bit more time in my day I am hoping to write more often.  I can only hope that it will be worthy of your expectations.

So, cheers everyone!  Go change something!

Geek PrideToday, May 25, is Geek Pride Day.  So get on out there and celebrate your own ferocious nerdiness my fellow geeks!

Ars Technica, one of the smartest tech news blogs out there, had a geek origins post today in which the Ars staff wrote about “the experiences that turned us into the savvy, nerdy people we have become.”  Inspired by their fun stories, here is my own geek origin story, such as it is.  Enjoy this random collection of geeky anecdotes spread out over my brief geeky life.

First Computer Experience

As a kid, I grew up with some of the earliest computers in school, but definitely not at home.  We would take typing tests in the 3rd grade on Macintoshes with a little cat that you raced across the screen.  I think that’s why I type so fast now.  I’m still racing that virtual cat.

Early Days of Gaming

The first computer I used at home was a Tandy my dad had discarded from his business.  In 6th grade I played a lot of Planetfall on it, which was one of the earlier science fiction computer games, text only of course, and it ran off of a 5 1/4″ floppy disk.  I loved that it was interactive, and that there was a choose-your-own-adventure kind of storyline unfolding like magic from a computer.  I remember typing naughty words into the command line to see what would happen, and the game yelling at me.  Ah, childhood.  Now I type naughty words into my computer and nobody yells back.  Planetfall led to a long line of PC games: Zork, Myst, Diablo, American McGee’s Alice…on and on.

OMG, the Interwebs!

During the last month of my senior year of high school, the computer science teacher excitedly gathered a group of us geeky kids (it was all the Literary Magazine kids, if I recall correctly) and took us into his office to show us this magical new thing called “the internet.”  He was so pumped when he got connected to the BBC website.  I still remember all of us sitting on the ground around his desk, trying to get close enough to see the screen, and him turning around and saying “Check it out! We’re connected to England right now!”  That feelingof amazement and incredulity at a concept so seemingly preposterous is something I recapture every time I try a new groundbreaking technology.

Uhh, Email?

I’d been enrolled in college at the University of Illinois for about a month in 1995 when a friend said “I sent you a few emails and you haven’t emailed me back.”  I still remember my moment of blankness and mental panic as I finally stammered “Uh, I have an email address?”  Apparently all students got them, but I didn’t get the postal letter telling me about mine.  Yes, a postal letter telling you about an email address.  Once he showed me how to log in, though, I got super excited and started emailing everyone I could find in the student address book as well as my friends across the country at Stanford.  That seemed so cool and futuristic.

Fun with College Boyfriends

My college boyfriend taught me a lot about computers.  No thanks to him for breaking my heart, but I still owe him big for upping my geek quotient.  He was a computer science major, and I remember late nights helping him build a computer from scratch, debug C code, and diagram a network.  All that was a good balance to my English major workload of reading and writing non-stop.  He also introduced me to MUDs (multi-user dungeons), early online games that were (*gasp*) text only if you young’uns can believe that.  I played BatMUD like a madwoman for years, and thus was introduced to people living all over the world and the idea of a truly international net.  I can still remember my shortcut commands for various in-game tasks, like “mm bunny” for “attack bunny with a magic missile.”  Don’t ask me why they made bunnies the enemy, or why bunnies left gold and other items after you killed them.  I always pictured them with little bunny fanny packs.

Webmaster by Default

I worked for the University of Illinois Undergraduate Library while in Library School and one day my boss (the truly kick ass David Ward, still at U of I) told me I was the webmaster for the library’s Question Board (a type of “ask us anything” Q&A website).  So, I figured it out.  I was taking the sole web design class offered by the library science school (we weren’t allowed to cross-enroll in the computer science classes).  And thus I learned HTML the best way — by just doing it.  It’s how I tackled all other coding languages from that point on (jump in, flail about, and hope for the best).  David also obtained super cool status for implementing one of the first ever chat reference programs at a library, something that we graduate assistants got to staff and which was my introduction to live online communication.  If David hadn’t given me that web project or encouraged us to provide live online reference, I know for a fact I wouldn’t be doing what I do today.

Librarians Encouraging Librarians

I’d been a librarian for less than two years in late 2003, and I saw a conference presentation from Aaron Schmidt and Michael Stephens about this amazing new thing called blogging.  I went up to talk to them after the session was over and I remember gushing like a fan girl about how cool this all was and how amazing they were. And then I remember Michael saying “You sound like you have something to say. You should start a blog.”  A month later I started Librarian in Black.

My Geeky Thank Yous

So, thank you, little cat typing game, for making me type faster.

Thank you, Dad, for bringing home a computer with a game.

Thank you, high school computer science teacher, for showing me the internet in its early days and for sharing your sense of wonder with us.

Thank you, random college friend, for having the patience to show me how to use email (and patience was indeed required).

Thank you, college boyfriend, for being really smart and teaching me stuff and helping me avoid being PKed in BatMud.

Thank you, David Ward, for being an awesome librarian who encouraged his library school graduate assistants to do groundbreaking things.

And thank you, Aaron and Michael, for taking the time to talk to a newbie and encouraging me to have a voice.

Without these people and experiences, I wouldn’t be the geek I am today.

Maker Faire bannerSaturday I attended the Bay Area Maker Faire.  So many smart people with great ideas, super interesting projects, and an amazing willingness to openly share what they’ve learned.  Sounds a little like a library, doesn’t it? 🙂  If you’re not familiar with the Maker Faire, the website describes the event as celebrating “arts, crafts, engineering, science projects and the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) mindset” (so says the Faire’s ample Wikipedia page).  It’s *amazing* and totally worth your effort to attend (which for me included going to 7 parking lots unsuccessfully before finally parking at a store a mile away and walking…totally worth it).

I attended to get inspired — to see what people are building, making with their hands, and creating out of the ideas floating around in their beautiful brains.  Below is my photo essay with a few of my favorite parts of MakerFaire, and why I loved them.

MacGyver Class

MacGyver Class - a great kit to help kids build things out of duct tape, paper clips, egg cartons, rubber bands, etc. Possible library program? Absolutely!

bug in a box

Kit to create a listening device disguised as a hardcover book. Totally kick-butt library craft project (soldering required; beware burns)!

kinetic sculpture

Gigantic kinetic sculpture. Kids turn the wheel, cogs and wheels turn, and sound is made. NEAT to watch!

kids building with blocks

So many exhibits had things you could build. Creative expression ruled supreme, demonstrating how important interactivity is to a successful program. Lesson to be learned for all libraries.

trash amps

$2.99 + a used soda can = one speaker/amp you can use with your iPod or other portable device. Another cheap craft project for the library!

tap tap animation

A cool interactive light sculpture. Every one of these lights turns on and off upon being touched. A living, always-changing light sculpture. Called "tap tap animation."


This is totally something I want to do on our lawn. Personalize your blox, then add it to the crowdsourced sculpture.

Android zoetrope

Android zoetrope with dancing jumping Android robots. Sweet geekdom!

Bre Pettis

The ever amazing Bre Pettis at the MakerBot booth. MakerBot 3D printers are changing the world, people. Learn more at (and buy one for your library).

neon globe

Animated globe made w/ 2D flexible neon tubing. This looked awesome and quite 3D from across the room, and getting closer you could see it was all done in neon in 2D!

inflated sculptures

Everyone, young and old, was pushing through these air sculptures. Again, the word "interactive" is key!

kinetic rock sculpture

A *huge* kinetic rock sculpture (a.k.a. how to get kids to run around underneath boulders supported by rusty metal). Not recommended for library use. 😉

musical trailer

A trailer converted into a moving band - instruments mounted to the walls, totally inviting to play whatever and wherever you wanted. The idea of community-sourced music was huge at the Maker Faire.

magic pointer stick thingie

Magic pointer stick thingie turned an ordinary projector & screen into an interactive touchscreen. Srsly. Potential for teaching classes? Heck yes!

tesla + cage + kids

This last photo is from a big event on the main stage, and it reinforced the need for "the wow factor" to really make memories that last. 1 million volts from Tesla coils zapping into kids in a metal cage, in time with electronic music playing. Truly cool! Can I have a Tesla coil for my library? Anyone? I'm taking donations!

All in all, I was amazed at how much inspiration I drew from the Maker Faire.  And not just because I could see ways to insert some of the ideas into the library.  I was in the presence of more collective brainpower than ever before (sorry library conferences).  I was with people from a variety of interest areas and professions who just wanted to share what they loved and get other people to love it just as much.  I saw geeky  parents toting their equally geeky kids around, which gave me hope for the future of our planet (this nicely combats the “god-there-are-a-lot-of-really-stupid-people feeling that I often get while in public places).  And lastly, I got to see some seriously cool futuristic stuff.  But the weird thing is that the future is now, largely because people like those at the Maker Faire keep creating, testing, building, thinking, and…well…they keep making.

If you get the chance to attend a Maker Faire in your area, do it.  You’ll come away happy and full of intrepid awesomeness.

May is Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Awareness Month. This is important to me because I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.

Two years ago, I posted about my illness and experiences with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.  Today, I hope to raise awareness and to offer some hope for EDS survivors.

Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is a genetic disorder that affects the body’s production of collagen. Considering that 30% of your body is collagen (factoid of the day), that means that 30% of my body’s systems are a bit wonky: skin, ligaments, tendons, internal organs, etc.

My post last year explains in detail what EDS is and what its effect is on a person. But here’s the short version. EDS causes every collagen cell to be faulty and programmed to be too stretchy. This means that skin, tendons, ligaments, and other collagen-heavy body parts are super-stretchy and flexible.  For example, I can touch the tips of my fingers to the back of my hand.  Joints are very unstable, painful, and dislocate often. Oh the stories I could tell about dislocated wrists, hips, ribs, and knees! Other effects are chronic systemic nerve inflammation and pain, easy scarring, eye and vision problems, digestive system problems, vascular problems, and increased overall sensitivity (food allergies, contact reactions to chemical substances, etc.).  Pretty much anywhere there’s collagen, we’re screwed.  A good way to think about EDS if you’re not familiar with it is that it feels like extreme rheumatoid arthritis in every single joint, with the addition of dislocations and lots of other nasty side effects when you least expect them.

There is no cure for EDS.  There is little hope for a cure.  There are only limited treatments to ameliorate the chronic pain and over-flexibility.

Two years ago my health was quite poor.  I was walking with a cane, on five different medications for pain, and dealing with the mental and memory side effects from these medications. And I hurt…a lot. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I was on the other side of it. Looking at photos of myself from this period, I look horrible. I look like a different person.

This year I am very pleased to offer a ray of light for other EDS patients. I got tired of my limited life and just plain decided I’d had enough. So I fought back. It wasn’t easy, but it worked.

A year ago I underwent a medical process to come off of the opioid painkillers. It’s called an induction and it sucked. Basically, I cut off my medication cold turkey and then went into withdrawal for 48 hours. Yes, that’s as bad as it sounds.  At the point that I was in “moderate withdrawal,” my system was flushed with another medication that fills the same pain receptors in the brain that the opioids did, but that medication is a lot easier to come off of (it took me a few months).  The withdrawal is everything that movies and television make it look like—nausea, flashes of hot and cold, uncontrollable movements, anxiety, difficulty thinking straight. I was convinced that I was dying—everything in my body and brain told me I was going to die, no matter the doctor’s reassurances. It was awful.

But the end result was wonderful. I am now off of all opioids and 2/3 done coming off of the one remaining non-opioid pain medication I am taking. I feel so much better. A few months after coming off of the medication, I found that my pain levels were reduced by about half. My theory is that the hyperalgesia caused by years of use of strong pain medication was creating pain where there was none before, creating more pain receptors ad infinitum.

In addition to the medication changes, I also stopped using the cane after a few months of intense physical therapy and exercise to strengthen the muscles around the joints the cane was supporting. Again, I just decided I’d had enough and did what I had to do to get myself where I wanted to be. Yay no cane!

I still do have joint pain every day, especially in my spine and hands, but my overall chronic pain is not nearly as bad as it was before. I still have limited mobility and have to be very careful about what I do physically. I still dislocate things, though less frequently (I think now that I’m actually feeling all of the pain my body is experiencing, I get the early warning signs that I should stop a potentially dangerous activity).  I can go hiking, walking, exercising, typing, writing, and cooking for much longer periods than I could before.  Despite all of the challenges and modifications I have to make, the important part is that I have a big part of my life back.

So why did I share my illness two years ago? And why do I share what’s happened since then now? Simple. In true librarian fashion, I want to share information. I want to educate people about Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and I want to hold out a thread of hope for other sufferers of EDS. It can get better. You can adjust your life in a positive way, not always letting the disorder and your limitations rule your world. I’m happy to help, advise, support, and listen if you want me to. Pop me an email at [email protected], DM me on Twitter at @TheLiB, or leave a comment below.

To learn more about Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, check out the Ehlers-Danlos National Foundation , Ehlers-Danlos Network, and the awesome resource list built by the amazing librarian Rick Roche: Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome: A Reference Librarian Looks at Consumer Health Reference Sources.

My library, the San Rafael Public Library, has gotten a fair amount of play in local media regarding our decision to not purchase HarperCollins eBooks due to their recent change in policy that makes eBooks artificially expire after 26 circulations.

  • On April 6th we issued a press release (pdf) about our position.
  • On April 15th the Marin Independent Journal covered the “we’re not buying stuff from HarperCollins ” decision at both our library and the local County library system with the story “Marin libraries join battle over e-books.”
  • On April 26th the editorial cartoonist for the Marin Independent Journal created a cartoon about the issue (see below), depicting a library user at our library asking about eBooks.

I got grumpy about the HarperCollins decision, and was proud that my library and the others in our county stood up against an anti-user, anti-library change in licensing.  Excellent job standing up for the user, Marin librarians!

You can follow the latest on the fight against HarperCollins’s self-defeating and asinine policy through the Twitter hashtag #hcod.

Today is the 2011 Day Against DRM.   I stand firmly against digital rights management of any kind.  As stated in the eBooks Bill of Rights I co-authored with Andy Woodworth, “Digital Rights Management (DRM), like a tariff, acts as a mechanism to inhibit this free exchange of ideas, literature, and information.”  That is not acceptable to me.  There are arguments to made for some kind of ideal future with lightweight and invisible DRM, but I do not agree with them.   DRM is bad.  Period.

As a librarian, I cannot in good conscience endorse spending library funds on content laden with DRM.  It is not a sound investment for the long-term, and it supports and sustains a business model of proprietary control that I do not agree with.  As a librarian, I believe in free access to information and the right and responsibility of libraries to preserve the cultural record.  DRM prevents that.  DRM prevents fair use, the ability to purchase and give away/resell content you’ve purchased, back-ups, and control over content you purchased.

DRM takes the control of the content or device’s functionality away from the owner–forcing compliance with a company’s preferences through sheer brute force.  DRM treats you, the person who bought the content, as a de facto criminal.  You can’t use the content you legally and rightfully purchased or licensed in the way that is consistent with private property rights.  DRM is also crazy expensive to develop and maintain — so every time you buy a piece of content with DRM on it (say an Overdrive eAudioBook or an AAC music file from iTunes), part of that money is going toward the development of software that restricts your rights to use that very piece of content you just bought.  Just think how many more books we could buy for our libraries if we weren’t paying out the nose for companies to develop DRM to “protect” them from their rightful owners.

The Day Against DRM is celebrated internationally, and you can follow what’s going on via the Twitter hashtag #nodrm.  A lot is also being posted to blogs, traditional media sites, etc.

If you’re looking for things to do to announce your solidarity against digital rights management, look to Defective by Design (lots of ideas).  The organization puts out a lot of information, flyers, images, and posters for organizations to use to educate people about digital rights management and its effect on their privacy and freedom of information access.  Here is a particularly good half-sheet leaflet explaining what DRM is and why it’s bad.

So what can you do?

* Stop financing the people who restrict information access.  Don’t buy DRM-encoded content and products, like Blu-ray, iTunes music in AAC format, Windows Media Player, Amazon Kindle eBooks, Apple iBooks, and many more.  Don’t buy from retailers who insist on DRM as part of their content or devices.
* Promote collections of open access and DRM-free content at your library.
* Support and participate in open projects like Project Gutenberg and the ever-amazing OpenLibrary, an Internet Archive project to build a complete library of digital content.
* Tell our digital content providers (like Overdrive or ProQuest) that we don’t want DRM on our library eBooks — that it gravely damages the user’s experience and our image as a digital content provider.
* You can buy a shirt like mine that says “Librarians Against DRM” (which I am proudly wearing today at my library).  I’ve gotten 7 questions so far from users about its meaning.
* Which leads me to the last item: educate your users about digital rights management — both on library items and on the items they are buying as consumers.  What does DRM do?  What are the legal issues involved?  How can they advocate for change?

Digital rights management, and digital content overall, are issues of primary importance to libraries today.  It is our job to educate our communities about what is happening to their digital rights, and what they (and we) can do to promote continued open access to information.  After all, that’s what a library is all about.

I am lucky enough to be the guest on the most recent episode of the awesome video show This Week in Libraries.

Erik Boekesteijn and Jaap van de Geer interviewed me via  Skype about eBooks and library organizational advocacy, HarperCollins, the eBook User’s Bill of Rights, and the petition for library users and readers on about the HarperCollins ridiculousness.

It was fun, though Skype was a wee bit glitchy at times.  I really don’t talk like a Cylon, I swear!  Big thanks to Erik and Jaap!

Amazon announced the Kindle Library Lending project today, Amazon’s first steps toward licensing and lending Kindle eBooks through libraries. The Amazon press release states that this is coming later this year, and provides scant details about how the service would work.  A just-released Overdrive press release has more details.  But I have a lot of questions.

My initial reaction is that this is potentially awesome, and potentially scary. Libraries have done nearly nothing with Kindles to date because Amazon won’t license eBooks to libraries. And Amazon won’t let libraries lend eBooks out on Kindles they’ve purchased. Both actions are against the “single user” terms and conditions clause Amazon has. Even so, some libraries have purchased Kindles, loaded them with eBooks, and lent out the devices anyway. Kindle publicly stated this was not cool, but never went after them legally. So this is really the first Kindle-Library service ever that wouldn’t potentially result in somebody getting sued.

Let me start by giving well-deserved props to Amazon and Overdrive for finally coming to the library table. Thank you!

Overdrive and Amazon aren’t yet commenting on the terms and conditions of lending (I’m awaiting replies to my letters of inquiry). So please keep in mind that much of this is speculation at this point.

  • Tons of our users have Kindles so having eBooks to offer to our Kindle-using folks will be an overdue improvement in service.
  • If the Overdrive press release is really, truly true, it sounds like all the eBooks we’ve bought from them so far will become magically available in a Kindle-compatible format (let’s assume AZWs), and all the future eBooks we buy will be available as AZWs and compatible in some other format that works on other devices (EPUB?).  This is not consistent with their current practice that you pay for each format separately (e.g. buying one title in EPUB, PDF, and MOBI costs you three times).  Will this represent an overall change in Overdrive’s pricing and licensing models for titles?
  • How much is this going to cost us?  The initial reports seem, frankly, too good to be true.  How many libraries will be able to afford this mass Kindle conversion/addition to their collections?
  • I think one can argue that Amazon is using their super-easy-to-use device’s market share to promote their proprietary AZW format further.
  • Let’s also not forget that we’ll be dealing with two monopolies: Overdrive (monopoly on the library eBook market for popular titles) and Amazon (monopoly on Kindles and Kindle eBooks).  This can’t be good for pricing, terms and conditions, long-term feature improvements, nothing. Monopolies never benefit consumers.
  • In general, like others I’m not really sure why Amazon won’t just deal directly with libraries, which would be easier for us *and* remove the Overdrive middleman, which will probably end up costing us more money.  More people involved = more cost, which gets passed on to us.  Perhaps we’re just not a big enough perceived market to be worth the trouble?  Hey Amazon – we are a big market.  Come to us directly, please.  It’s not too late.
  • Will Kindle delivery happen via Whispernet as it does for consumers, or use the existing Overdrive console? Overdrive’s user experience has been consistently poor.  You know this if you’ve worked with users trying to download eBooks from them.  It’s gotten better, but bad web design and bad process design have been unfortunate hallmarks.
  • Are we getting MARC records?  They are essential to discovery for users, so I’d say this is a must and hope they’re forthcoming.
  • How are library users’ privacy rights protected (the bookmarks & notes archiving they’re doing)?  Both press releases say they will be, but….how?
  • Do we have to include the “buy it from Amazon” links in the eBook user interface? I’m rather uncool with that personally, and it’s actually against some cities’ and counties’ policies to do so.
  • We don’t know which publishers are participating. Simon & Schuster and Macmillan have chosen to never license eBooks to libraries at all. So is this a way around that (which would be sooooooo sweet)? Or can publishers opt out of this collection as they can with other Amazon services?  Overdrive’s updated release makes it sound like publishers can still opt out.
  • Also, remember that you will not own the eBooks you get from Amazon.  Like all our eBooks from Overdrive, unless you negotiate your contract to say otherwise, you are just licensing titles for access year after year.  You stop buying the platform and all of those eBooks you think you “bought” go *poof* and you have nothing to show for it.  This model sucks for libraries’ ability to preserve the cultural record long-term, but it’s what exists now and we’ve accepted it (well I haven’t, but the profession seems to have accepted it without question).  If nothing else, at least be aware of the position you’re putting yourself in by not owning your content.

Overall, to me, it’s just too soon to tell what this will look like.  But it’s really exciting to me to see what’s shaping up, what people are saying, and what libraries are thinking about.  We’re smart and fast, man.  There are a ton of great posts up already about the issue.  Take a look at these three for starters:

I am going to do what few librarians ever do. I am going to be perfectly frank about negative experiences with a vendor.  Consequences be damned.

I remember Meredith Farkas’s courageous post about EBSCO’s unethical practices in April of last year. There were repercussions for her post, but she met her goal of having the library community talking about EBSCO as a vendor to libraries.

Historically, librarians only publicly post about the positive experiences they’ve had with vendors. The negatives seem to only come out at late night drinking fests at conferences or in private conversations. I believe this lack of willingness to speak frankly about the companies we buy stuff from is due to three problems:

  1. As a profession, we’re generally nice people and don’t like to talk smack about anyone. This is generally a wonderful trait, but when we’re talking about allocating our scarce resources it can be extremely detrimental.
  2. Librarians are afraid of repercussions at work, including being disciplined, yelled at, or just plain fired.
  3. Librarians are afraid of the vendors, who they think might give them worse prices and support if they bad-mouth the product.

But hey, this is me. I’m tired of being quiet. And I’m not pulling any punches now that I don’t have to in order to preserve my job.

I’m going to tell you about my experiences with Freegal, and why Freegal is a bad investment for libraries.

I’ve worked with Freegal. I have dealt with the sales and support staff, used it as a user and as an administrator, I reviewed stats, and I fielded patron comments/complaints. And one of the reasons I’m posting this now is that Freegal is now cold-calling and cold-visiting my area’s libraries, and doing the typical sales dance that hides the limitations and problems of the product. A visit happened to my library yesterday, where the sales rep asked for our director for a cold-call sales pitch in person. I am pretty sure he didn’t realize that I now work for this library instead of my previous employer.

If I’m being polite, I would say that Freegal is not a wise investment for your library. If I’m being honest with you over a beer, I’ll say that Freegal is a frelling piece of junk and I don’t trust the company.

But whether you prefer the first or second mode of expression, the message is the same. Libraries have been lured into purchasing Freegal by well-crafted sales pitches, promises of future enhancements, and a false god of shiny technology.

Freegal is a product that offers libraries downloads of music, from Sony, as DRM-free MP3s (and DRM-free MP3s are awesome; let me be clear about that). Freegal Music is owned by Library Ideas, LLC. Library Ideas, LLC is a company that has a single webpage. Freegal also only has a single webpage. Now, if my librarian skills are telling me anything, I’d be a bit skeptical of giving tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to a company that has so sparse a web presence.

The last library I worked for purchased a year’s worth block of downloads from Freegal. The staff worked with it for a while and we had some bad experiences, including many complaints from customers.

I wrote a post in September 2010 about libraries and digital music: “Music in Libraries: We’re Doing It Wrong.” The post mentioned Freegal, as well as Overdrive and Alexander Street Music. Freegal did not like what I had to say. Comments were made on my blog, and a call was placed to someone above me in the library. This call from Freegal included asking my supervisor to tell me to remove my post, or at least revise it. I said no, and thankfully my director backed me up. This blog was and is a journalistic enterprise of my own making, done on my own time. If I want to comment on a vendor’s product or service, I can do so. We all can.

My goal here is to peel back the veil, to give you an honest assessment in my opinion, and to educate people about what exactly it is that Freegal has for libraries.

Why are we buying pay-per-use MP3s?
I believe that without really thinking it through, libraries who have subscribed to Freegal have created a fundamental change in their library’s collection policy and expenditures.

Libraries typically buy one copy of something, and then lend it out to multiple users sequentially, in order to get a good return on investment. Participating in a product like Freegal means that we’re not lending anymore, we’re buying content for users to own permanently so they don’t have to pay the vendor directly themselves. This puts us in direct competition with the vendor’s sales directly to consumers, and the vendors will never make more money off of libraries than they will off of direct consumer sales.

What that does is put libraries in a position of being economic victims of our own success. I would think that libraries would remember this lesson from our difficulties with the FirstSearch pay-per-use model that most of us found to be unsustainable.

The more popular our service gets, the less able we are to meet demand. The private industry is moving away from pay-per-use. Netflix, Rdio, etc. are offering all-you-can-eat models instead on a subscription model. Freegal puts us in danger of manufacturing a demand we can no longer meet. The pay-per-use model undermines the economic power of libraries, which is to aggregate our communities’ buying power and take advantage of the economies of scale. I believe strongly that buying a product like Freegal could be damaging to libraries’ long-term economic sustainability.

It’s important to realize that Freegal only offers Sony music. That’s it – one record label. Despite promises from the very beginning that they’re “just about to add new record labels,” they have not offered anything other than Sony music. To me, offering a service that only presents one publisher’s offerings is not in keeping with our collection policies that require non-preferential selection. Also please realize that not all Sony music is offered in Freegal. It’s a select number of albums from a select number of artists.

Freegal offers two models for purchase:

  • A library can buy a block of downloads, a set number for the whole year, but once those are gone they’re gone. You can either set a library-wide weekly cap (divide your yearly total by 52) or choose no cap. Users are limited to 3 downloads per week.
  • A library can buy the “unlimited plan” (which isn’t really unlimited) which lets any library user download 3 per week, with no weekly or yearly cap. And you guessed it, this option is significantly more expensive. For a large urban library, the quoted cost was well over $100,000—over half of the library’s entire eResources budget.

This pricing model is not sustainable for libraries. From the dozen librarians I’ve spoken with at libraries with Freegal, it seems that the average cost per song is on par with a consumer-cost for a song ($1) or slightly more ($1.10 or so). If we really want to offer users a wide selection of MP3s they can keep forever, wouldn’t it be cheaper and smarter to simply buy users 3 MP3s from any record label through Amazon or iTunes?

Feedback on Freegal from Users
We had hundreds of complaints from users about Freegal at my last library.  I have heard the same thing from most of the other Freegal libraries I’ve spoken with.  The main complaints I heard were that the 3 songs per week limit was not sufficient. We heard repeatedly that having to schedule yourself out for a month’s worth of downloads to get a full album was not realistic. Other users were severely unhappy that the collection was only Sony, and some pointed out the preferential treatment asking if we’d been paid off to just offer Sony music. Others reported that they loved the service at first, but found the weekly limit per person to be just plain annoying and stopped coming back to the site after a few weeks. Persistent access, not temporally limited, is the expected norm – and when a service doesn’t provide that, it creates less interest in repeated visits and use.

Customer Service
I forwarded user comments, questions, and complaints to Freegal. I got no response. Even though I was named as the contact for my library, the company persisted in contacting another librarian (who was the initial sales contact) for all issues.  It was as if I didn’t exist.  Even after a face-to-face meeting where the rep was told by our administration to only work with me, he continued to exclude me. It was like a junior high shunning.  Technical problems that users encountered were never addressed. It was like sending questions and emails into a vacuum. A company that behaves that way does not get a gold star in my book.

False Promises and Bullying
In addition to the bad customer service issues listed above, I also question the overall ethics of the company and its sales staff. Numerous promises were made to me (“off the record of course”) that new content from other record labels would be added in the next few months. It’s always “in the next few months” and yet that elusive day never seems to come. My advice is to never, ever buy a product based on features or content that is not explicitly included in the contract.

The company also swears that they are giving you an amazing deal that no other library receives. And guess what? Everybody’s getting that same deal. This happens with a lot of vendors. Remember: their job is to sell. Negotiating with vendors is sadly often more like negotiating for a used car than it is like buying a fixed-price item off the shelf.

I condemn the company’s decision to contact my supervisor to tell me to take down my post that mentioned their product.  Even if this had been on a library blog that I’d written on library time, that action is a very poor way to respond to criticisms of your product.  But the fact that this blog is mine and not the library’s made it indefensible.

The salesperson I worked with also told me that the contract terms, including pricing, was “strictly confidential” and that it could not go out of the room. Heads up: unless you signed a non-disclosure agreement with a company, you can discuss any contract terms with whoever you want. That kind of meaningless and baseless bullying from a vendor sits very poorly with me.

So why does Freegal continue to be such a big temptation for libraries?
One word: technolust. Libraries are so keen to offer digital content to their users, a worthy and long-overdue goal. But Freegal’s model is simply not the way to be successful for digital music.  We need to wait for, or create ourselves, something that does work for libraries.  Freegal doesn’t work because:

  • Select songs from one record label is not the way to be successful.
  • A costly and unsustainable pay-per-use model is not the way to be successful.
  • Low limits per week for users is not the way to be successful.
  • And working with a vendor that is a bit shady and unresponsive is not the way to be successful.

Am I wrong?
I admit that it’s possible. My own experiences may be drastically different than everyone else’s, though I’d be surprised if that was the case. If you and your library have had good experiences with Freegal, leave a comment here. If you disagree with the assertions I’ve made above, tell me why I’m wrong. If you’ve had bad experiences, please share those too—anonymously if you feel more comfortable sharing that way.  I encourage people, though, to name your library and yourself. I want to see more people talking about positives and negatives of various vendor experiences. We need to help each other as professionals to get the best deal from the best vendors out there.  Sharing information is good, right?  It’s the principle to which our profession is dedicated.  Let’s share as much as we can, the good and the bad.  In this case, unfortunately it’s the bad.