Magazine article American Libraries

E-Book Conference Illuminates Issues

Magazine article American Libraries

E-Book Conference Illuminates Issues

Article excerpt

The second annual Electronic Book Conference, sponsored and hosted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, was held in Gaithersburg, Maryland, September 21-22. Among the 600 attendees were several dozen representatives from the library community. The 33 presentations that were given during Electronic Book '99 provided a good perspective on the current state of the e-book industry and illuminated many of the issues important to librarians.

Many librarians have expressed concern that digital books will ultimately make libraries unnecessary. On this score, I believe there's little to fear. Content will always come at a cost. The people who are trying to facilitate electronic distribution of that content must create added value for the user to justify their role as electronic distributors; these new services may consume most, if not all, of the savings gained from not having to print, store, and move paper around. People will continue to need libraries to afford access to content.

While the e-book conference gave me the sense that this emerging industry wants to avoid a replay of the Betamax-versus-VHS war, I also got the impression that e-book vendors are salivating at the prospect of being able to sell content over and over again to the same customer as the format changes, as music publishers have been doing for the last 50 years with sound recordings. If this pattern repeats itself with books, libraries could wind up using a significant portion of their materials budgets repurchasing works already owned in an "antiquated" format.

The e-book industry does not speak of preservation; instead they call for "access in perpetuity." But after listening to dozens of vendor presentations, it became crystal clear that publishers and distributors of content are not concerning themselves with preservation as librarians understand that term. They view access in perpetuity as a legal issue that is solved when the buyer is given the right to have access without time limits. That the right to access may have little practical meaning as formats become obsolete and digital content can no longer be accessed by current hardware and software is of no concern to most of them. After all, they have already made their sale.

The preservation issue has many complex facets, many of which cannot be solved by market arrangements between libraries and content providers. But one vital prerequisite - a standard distribution format - is under the control of content providers. Version 1.0 of the Open E-Book (OEB) standard (see was formally announced by NIST at Electronic Book '99. Although the ability to purchase content in this XML-formatted standard does not guarantee a library that it can preserve that content, it does establish a firm foundation on which preservation strategies can be pursued.

Welcome to DRMland

If I were asked to name the catch phrase of the day, based on talk at the Electronic Book '99 Conference, I would reply with "DRM," or Digital Rights Management. The next big standards push will likely be the development of standard ways to transfer rights information among systems. From the vendors' point of view, this is what is needed to create a mass market. From the libraries' point of view, the implementation of DRM will make possible new arrangements to pay for access to content - from complete ownership to short-term leasing, and various combinations in between.

A related term I first encountered at the conference is "superdistribution." This refers to the ability to distribute copies of e-texts ubiquitously while at the same time being able to prevent the recipients from viewing the e-text without first paying for it. It is DRM that will make super distribution possible. Spam will take on a whole new level of functionality.

This brings us to one final issue: the usefulness of the electronic readers themselves. The issues of readability and portability still loom large for libraries and their users. …

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