We’ve always had a bit of an image problem.

Things That Make the Librarian Angry

Enforcing artificial scarcity is a bad role for a public institution.

I was drawn to librarianship because I like to help people, I’m organized, and I believe in intellectual freedom — people’s right to learn and teach and know whatever they want. I like technology because it can solve problems, lots of them. Sometimes the overlap between my two favorite things creates pockets of cognitive dissonance where the technology that solves a problem for the market creates one for the library and its users. Here’s one.

Having a waiting list for library ebooks is really stupid, on the face of it. As a librarian I’m pretty savvy about digital content—enough to know that patrons want it, lots of it. However, we have a short list of ways that we can offer it in a lendable fashion. At work I keep my game face on. At home I just want to tell people the truth, the frustrating truth: offering digital content in this way has short term benefits but long term negative consequences.

People new to libraries and ebook lending regularly write in to Open Library where I work, to say we’re stupid because we have waitlists for ebooks. Don’t we understand technology and know that you can make infinite copies of a digital file? Doesn’t digital rights management (DRM) just increase friction between the reader and the book they want? Isn’t the Internet Archive all about giving things away for free? Shouldn’t the entire internet be free?

To be charitable, maybe they’re just saying the idea of having waitlists for ebooks is stupid. I don’t disagree, but it’s hard not to take these things personally. I get sort of indignant about this sometimes. Librarians have a lot of simmering resentment about some of the roles we play in the new economy. There’s a lot we don’t say.

Librarians love their stickers. Where does this one go, exactly? (source)

If you want to borrow a book from Open Library and put it on your device (instead of reading it online via the BookReader), you need to grapple with Adobe’s DRM. All libraries that lend ebooks use some form of DRM. I’m sorry. I’m well aware that any DRM decision is not value-neutral, and that Adobe in specific has not been real trust-inspiring lately. At the same time, there aren’t a lot of options. Lending via Amazon and Kindle is worse, linking even more of your personal information—your address, your credit card, your purchasing history—to your reading habits. In a national public library culture where all fifty states have guidelines or laws about reader privacy, no currently available lending solution helps us keep our patrons’ data truly private. There is no good ebook lending solution, yet.

Every job requires compromise, or at least this is what I tell myself. My job involves giving things away—which is very much in line with my Free Culture values—and at the same time teaching people a byzantine hokey-pokey dance over email to access that “free” material spreading a deceptive and unnecessary “tech is hard” message.

Tech doesn’t have to be hard. People make it hard because they have priorities other than providing the simplest user interface or the best user experience.

Nothing wrong with this necessarily, but we should be able to be honest about these priorities. While there is some utility in people gaining skills in installing software, or creating and remembering multiple user/password combinations, this seems like a large number of hurdles for checking out a library book.

First, get an account at OpenLibrary.org. Then download, install, and register Adobe’s software or if you prefer, some other software that will work with Adobe’s DRM. You’ll need to get an Adobe ID no matter what software you choose. Your usual ebook reader software may not work. In fact, it probably won’t. Here’s a list of software options for various devices. Some of them are open source. Yes there are options for Linux. The book loan will expire after two weeks. I know, it’s weird. It gets easier after the first time. Yes, I wish it were different.

Funny story about the Wizard of Oz’s copyright… (image credit)

My personal moral quandary—I’ve made my peace with working with DRM for now, though I’m not always happy about it—is how honest should I be about some of this process? Transparency, candor, and honesty are valued traits, especially for online-only organizations. And yet, complete honesty comes with its own downsides. We’ve been taught in the US to be cautious, to be afraid.

When someone emails to say they can’t finish a book by the end of the lending period, I suggest kludgey workarounds (“Put yourself on the waitlist for the book and you can check it back out again.”), but I don’t tell them that there are applications that can strip off the DRM so they can keep the book forever. When someone expresses concern about Adobe’s invasive software I offer them software alternatives, but I don’t explain how to sign up for an Adobe ID using a fake identity and a proxy server. I know how to do these things. I do not talk about how to do these things.

Accurate copying used to be more labor-intensive and thus much less legally scrutinized. (image credit)

This process worked differently in the brick-and-mortar library where I knew all the patrons personally and could mention quietly across the desk that they could rip the 16 CD audiobook on to their laptop if they couldn’t listen to it all in two weeks. I usually drew the line at showing them how to do it. Usually. “Using something like Handbrake to rip DVDs is a violation of the DMCA” I’d say, and my patron would listen and nod and write down handbrake. Or I could tell people to ignore the threatening warning on the photocopy machine when they were copying a magazine article for their book group… which did call into question why we had that sticker on the copy machine in the first place.

“It might not be technically legal but it is technologically possible.” is what I would say, adding that I did not know anyone in the US who had gotten in legal trouble for using this or any other library photocopier, despite the oogy-boogy messages. I’m well aware that ignorance of the law isn’t actually a reasonable excuse or defense, but putting people’s minds at ease by differentiating possibility from probability is an important step in digital literacy. Teaching people about having technology serve them includes helping them learn to assess and evaluate risk for themselves.

In library school we learned a lot about the reference interview; how to take what a patron was saying and convert it into an information need even when the patron might not even know exactly what they wanted. The question “Can I do this?” has a range of answers depending on what exactly is being asked.

  • Is it technologically possible?
  • Is it okay according to the rules of the system we work within?
  • Is it allowed according to some set of laws that we can agree on?
  • Is it ethical according to some set of ethics that we can agree on?
  • Do I, the librarian, know how to do it?
  • Could they, the patron, understand how to do it?

When an Open Library patron asks me over email if they can keep an ebook longer than the two-week lending period, the actual answers to these questions which are all some variant of “Can I do this?” are: yes, no, no, maybe, yes and maybe. If you came to my house and had fifteen or twenty minutes, I would explain the nuances of these answers to you. If you came and asked me this in a library I would make some split-second judgments and decisions about the proper way to answer your question. But over email, with a person I don’t know and can’t see, I err on the side of caution and just say “No, you can’t do that.” And that makes me a little angry; mad at myself and mad at a system that puts me in this awkward place, telling untruths to people who possibly don’t know better, people who trust me.

I’m not sure, after all this, if I’m more concerned for the users who tell us that this system is stupid, or for the users who seem to accept that this is a totally reasonable way for a system to work.

It’s been looking recently like just telling people that DRM is strippable isn’t itself an infringing act. This is good news. Library organizations are working on the larger problem both in the policy arena as well as the technological one. I’ve got a good feeling that mine is a temporary, not lifelong, angst. But every time I go into my local library and see the copyright stickers on the printers, I feel that part of the solution has to be a social one. Information workers need to be willing to step up and be more honest about how technology really works and not silently carry water for bad systems. People trust us to tell them the truth.

We can do better.

[Policy wonks who want to truly understand the ebook lending environment in public libraries should consider reading A Review of Public Library E-Lending Models (pdf) December 2014]