July 21, 2024

Librarians Face Patrons Unhappy With Penguin Policy Change; ALA Condemns Ebook Decision


The decision by Penguin Group (USA) to suspend library lending of its new ebook titles and to suspend Kindle accessibility for all Penguin titles has left librarians once again facing patron gripes and drawn condemnation from the president-elect of the American Library Association.

The change in policy, which Penguin justified because of “security concerns” in a statement released Monday, may also hinge, at least in part, on a glitch that temporarily leaves books on a patron’s Kindle even though the loan period has ended.

Maureen Sullivan, the president-elect of ALA, said that Penguin’s decision is a loss for readers.

“If Penguin has an issue with Amazon, we ask that they deal with Amazon directly and not hold libraries hostage to a conflict of business models.

“This situation is one more log thrown onto the fire of libraries’ abilities to provide access to books – in this case titles they’ve already purchased.  Penguin should restore access for library patrons now.”

LaTanya West, a branch manager at the Cecil County Public Library in Maryland, said that she had received calls from patrons who were concerned that books whose loan periods had expired were still on their machines.

“From what I understand, when a user downloads a book to their Kindle through Overdrive it goes into their archive file and the Overdrive software isn’t equipped to ‘return’ an item from that part of the users’ Kindle and patrons do not have an option to return the book manually,” West said. “We have had questions from people because our system has a four-book limit and users were concerned that they would not be able to get additional titles since these books still show on their accounts,” she said.

The issue may be  tied to the wireless connection for a device.

Jo-Ann Benedetti, the manager of information and outreach services of the Upper Hudson Library System, a cooperative association of 29 public libraries in New York’s Albany and Rensselaer counties, has been handling patron complaints about the new Penguin policy, and she conducted a test of archived titles.

When on the home page of the Kindle, if she clicked on a title for which the loan had expired, she was prompted that the loan was over and given an option to buy. If she then went to an expired title that was in the archive and clicked on it, she received the same prompts.

However, when she returned a book and then turned off her WiFi connection the title remained accessible in the archive until she turned her WiFi back on. There is additional discussion of this issue on Amazon’s Kindle forum.

Brandon Barnett, the electronic resources librarian at Multnomah County Library in Oregon, had heard the same thing from a patron, but she did not see why this should be a concern for Penguin, if, in fact, that is the root of the security issue.

“It’s kind of ridiculous because even if it’s true it’s unlikely a patron is never going to connect to their WiFi again,” she said.

John Larson, the digital library manager at the St. Paul Public Library, said it may be similar to what happens with purchased titles.

“When I de-register the Kindle the items I’ve purchased remain on the Kindle even though it’s no longer on my account,” he said. Once the device is registered to a new account, the titles disappear. He has noticed that on some of the library’s older, deregistered Kindles  the collection of titles still remains on the machines.

In any case, the sudden inaccessibility of Penguin titles via the Kindle has left librarians to explain once again to befuddled patrons why they cannot access library books on their Kindle, a long-awaited capability that only became available September 21.

Larson said he had a complaint from a patron who had gotten a notice from the library that a book on hold for a Penguin title in a Kindle edition was available but when they went to download it they couldn’t.

“I thought they were mistaken, but they weren’t,” Larson said, noting that OverDrive was tardy in notifying libraries of the change in policy with a late afternoon posting Monday on its Digital Library blog.

Benedetti, of the Hudson Library System, had the same complaint.

“What was frustrating was yesterday morning I started getting support calls from patrons,” she said. “I was a little upset that my patrons were finding out something and I was blindsided. People had specifically reserved the Kindle edition and when told it was available they couldn’t get it,” she said.

Some of Penguin’s decision may be driven by tension with Amazon, according to Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch, who wrote today:

Though OverDrive had promised in April that patrons’ “confidential information will be protected,” in implementation their program is an engine for turning library users into Amazon customers. The expectation was that OverDrive would serve Kindle-compatible files, but instead they send patrons directly to Amazon’s site for processing. Some publishers believe this violates their contracts with both OverDrive and Amazon.

Laura Hazard Owen, at paidContent.org, speculated about some other possible reasons for the action.

A number of library systems contacted for this article said that the decision has not cost them any money so far, although it may impact their purchasing decisions in the future.

“We don’t specify format when purchasing ebooks from OverDrive, so there aren’t separate fees for Kindle content, it is either available or not available for the ebook copies we purchase,” said Alene Moroni, the manager for selection and order at King County Library System in Washington.

“It’s kind of a fuzzy situation,” said Michael Colford, the director of resource services and information technology at Boston Public Library. “We don’t pay extra for a book that has a Kindle edition, but we do make decisions on what to purchase if there is a Kindle edition available,” he said. Colford said this really comes into play with holds since the library can see if a preponderance of holds are for one particular format and then order accordingly.

“Up until yesterday we hadn’t been paying attention to who’s publishing the book, but now we may have to,” he said.

Todd Feinman, the chairman of the Oregon Digital Library Consortium (ODLC) , which has 22 library systems in its network (over 100 locations), said more complaints were likely forthcoming.

“I think that the whole paradigm is shifting and I imagine that there will be more of this over time,” he said. “I don’t know where this is going. These things are usually a surprise to us. It’s just hard to say what a publisher is going to do next,” he said.

Feinman said libraries could always boycott if necessary. ODLC has refused to license any ebooks from HarperCollins to protest that publisher’s February decision to limit library loans to 26 circulations.

Penguin and OverDrive did not return calls seeking comment.

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.


  1. Michael Borges says:

    Libraries need to start working directly with authors for access and bypass the publishers if they are going to be playing this game. Perhaps a model where the authors keep 90% of the profits from libraries purchasing directly from them might shake things up a bit.