The Public Book: The Access/ownership Dilemma Persists

Article excerpt

You know those days where, totally by happenstance, all your meetings and conversations wind up being about the same thing? (Excepting the "Why did she wear that to the Oscars?" sort of thing, I mean.)

I had one of those the other day, courtesy of a morning meeting with the group advising Seattle Public Library on its new strategic plan and an afternoon call with Eva Miller, a friend who is trying to find some way to convince publishers that library distribution of e-books won't totally destroy their markets--an uphill battle, by all accounts.

Both discussions came around to the question of how books get around, or don't. Yesteryear, we bought books, they went to the shelves, people borrowed them or used them one at a time (more or less); rinse and repeat. Now books come in lots of different forms, multiple versions by device and format, prompting agita about standards, interoperability, rights management, and so on.

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Public library folks will recognize this situation: deciding how many of which books to buy in hardcover, paperback, large print, audio, translation. It's increasingly looking as though we might have to think about acquiring up to a dozen or so different "versions" (formats, flavors, instantiations, manifestations) of a "book."

One potential solution to this would be something like a site license for a book. We already do this in the database and scholarly journal world, paying a flat or per-per-son fee and getting some level of use or access to a given body of content. Maybe 25cents a head buys unlimited readership of the latest Stephen King or Malcolm Gladwell opus, regardless of format, and you're done.

Before you start poking at the obvious and nontrivial impediments to this hair-brained notion, think about it for a second. First of all, it might not be all that long until the book publishers get around to this idea, so you ought to have an answer ready when they do; and second, wouldn't it at least on some level make our lives, and our services, easier? …