May 19, 2024

Ebooks Choices and the Soul of Librarianship


Over the last few years, as a fifth of American adults have gotten ereaders, ebooks have transformed the book market and reading landscape. The library market is no exception. There’s now an array of established vendors and emerging options for libraries to choose from in order to deliver ebooks to patrons.  In my job as the librarian at one of the emerging options (, I’ve seen the pros and cons of various models, and thought about what those mean.

Here’s my conclusion: ebook models make us choose.  And I don’t mean choosing which catalog, or interface, or set of contract terms we want — though we do make those choices, and they matter. I mean that we choose which values to advance, and which to sacrifice.  We’re making those values choices every time we sign a contract, whether we talk about it or not.

Andromeda Yelton is one of the founding members of Unglue.It. Photo by Molly Tomlinson,

Traditional vendor platforms provide access to a lot of content, while freeing libraries from the complexity of negotiating for it. But cloud hosting, restrictive terms, and uncertainty about content ownership undermine library use cases.  Emerging models often have less content, but more flexible terms.  (For a thoughtful summary, see Brett Bonfield’s recent post on In the Library with the Lead Pipe.)

What does this mean for library values?  A recent Library Journal article states, “Our primary role is to champion the rights of access for our users.”  I’d like to challenge that statement.  Access is one of the core values of librarianship, but we have others. Privacy. Sharing. Preservation. Paper books can serve all those values simultaneously.  Ebooks bring them into tension. Let’s talk about that.


“With a printed book, there’s no such thing as an analytic. You can’t tell which pages are dog-eared,” said Scholastic editorial director David Levithan in a recent Wall Street Journal article. Historically reading has been private; there’s no way to tell which passages a reader stopped on, which books are finished or abandoned, who wrote the marginalia. Ebooks can be equally private, but they generally aren’t.  And libraries — which have a grand tradition of standing up for users’ privacy rights — can’t protect data stored with third parties. In fact, under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, the government does not even need a warrant to seize data in the cloud.

These issues were exposed when Amazon ebooks became available through Overdrive. Although this was an important step forward for access, patrons and librarians were surprised to see emails from Amazon inviting them to buy the book as borrowing periods ended.

These strings can’t be attached to paper books. They’re anonymous, offline, and untracked. But ebooks raise a host of important questions: what data is collected on patrons and their reading habits? How, where, and for how long is it stored? Under what circumstances does your vendor’s privacy policy permit it to be disclosed?  What do your state laws and institutional policies say about your responsibility to protect patron information — and do your vendor’s policies, and national laws, even let you fulfill that responsibility?


Second, libraries value sharing. It’s what we do: acquire resources like books, meeting space, and expertise, and share them with the community. In the case of books, we’ve been able to do this historically because of the right of first sale. This means that, when we purchase a book, we own it; among other things, we can loan it or give it away. Ebooks, however, aren’t generally purchased; they’re licensed. These licenses fall under contract law, not copyright law, and as such can impose additional restrictions.

People can’t give their used ebooks to the library, as a patron of the Douglas County public library discovered to his chagrin. Publishers and platforms can, and do, limit files to one simultaneous user, 26 total checkouts, access only while online or via specific devices. Digital rights management (DRM) software, instead of library circulation policy, imposes limits on sharing.


One of libraries’ key roles for millennia has been cultural memory: preserving the records and ideas that made us who we are.  It’s why we feel horror and violation at the threats to Timbuktu’s cultural heritage today. Preservation matters.

But bluntly, we can’t preserve files we can’t keep. Digital preservation requires the ability to make lots of copies in lots of places, to protect against inevitable server failures and other damage.  (This is why the collaborative system for electronic journal preservation is called LOCKSS: “Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe.”) Preservation requires the ability to check files against each other or authoritative sources, in order to guard against bit rot or malicious change. It requires the ability to shift files to new formats as devices, standards, and needs change.

We can’t do any of this with most ebooks. The files don’t live on library servers. License terms can restrict copying, archiving, and format shifting. This is why the Amazon/Overdrive deal was news; if libraries had had the ability to shift those ebooks to .mobi format on their own, no deal would have been needed. This is why Jo Budler’s high-profile move to 3M was news: because Kansas’ contract let them keep the files during the move, but she had to fight to enforce that — and the contract language has since changed to prevent other libraries from doing the same. This is why it was news when HarperCollins imposed a 26-checkout limit, and Amazon deleted copies of 1984 from users’ Kindles.  We don’t expect that books we own can vanish.  But, of course, we don’t own ebooks; we merely license them. Their cultural memory isn’t ours to keep.


Fourth, there’s the value of access to information. This is the value that usually drives discussions of ebook models: our patrons want this content, in electronic format, and we need to provide it.  Serving patrons and staying relevant matters; libraries are, in a fundamental way, about access to information.  However, the access question is complicated, because it’s not just “access to what?”, but “access for whom?”

Does your ebook platform provide content that’s compatible with all devices? If the content can be loaded on a given device in theory, can it also be in practice? Some ebooks must be downloaded to a computer before they can be added to a device, meaning they’re in-library access only for patrons who don’t own computers. Some require a complicated, multistep setup process which not all patrons can navigate. And what about five years from now, when some patrons haven’t upgraded their original devices, and others have something we can’t even imagine today — will all those devices still be compatible with the formats and DRM on your ebook platform?  Do your terms let you do anything to adapt the content you’ve licensed to the devices your patrons use?

And what about accessibility? As I noted above, tech savviness can be an accessibility hurdle. So, of course, can physical impairments.  In May, blind patrons filed suit against the Free Library of Philadelphia for its Nook lending program, because this ereader (unlike some others) is not accessible to blind users. Some publishers disable the read-aloud feature for their books, making them useless for some readers.  Ironically, this happens even when end users have full legal rights to that sort of format-shifting; Alice in Wonderland, which is in the public domain, and Lawrence Lessig’s Creative-Commons-licensed ebook Remix have both had publishers disable their read-aloud feature.

Finally, are we giving patrons of today access at the expense of patrons of tomorrow? Consider the serials crisis. In the mid 1990s, academic libraries started purchasing titles as bundles, lowering their per-title cost but also reducing their purchasing flexibility — the now-ubiquitous Big Deal. This greatly expanded journal access to patrons of the time, but locked libraries into a marketplace that wasn’t in their long-term best interests. Now, journal costs are skyrocketing and libraries are having to make hard decisions about content access for monographs as well as journals. When the bundles the must-have journals are in start to cannibalize your budget, what other content and services have to go?  In essence, libraries increased article access for patrons of the 1996 at the expense of both article and monograph access for patrons of 2012.

The same situation is happening today with ebooks. We have options which increase library ebook access for today’s patrons — but the marketplace they create doesn’t always reflect libraries’ best interests, and that’s going to affect tomorrow’s patrons. If we buy into a status quo today that can triple ebook prices and slash how often a book can circulate overnight, what will be the terms for the must-have content of 2020?  What content or services might we have to cut then to support the system we’re cultivating now?  When you have to choose whether the patron of 2012 and the patron of 2020 gets access to information, which do you choose, and why?


I’ve asked a lot of questions in this essay, and I don’t have answers. Sometimes there are no good answers. Sometimes the best answer will vary, by library and by librarian, according to your mission and your patrons and your contracts.

The one thing I know for certain about the future of ebooks in libraries is that it’s about tradeoffs among deeply held values. Right now, we have lots of options which protect ebook access via established distribution chains and publisher agreements — but they also limit it through DRM, restricted format support, and outright refusal by some publishers to sell ebooks to libraries. Negotiating preservation can be complicated or impossible; privacy questions lurk; and checkout limits put sharing at risk.

The eleven emerging models profiled in the In the Library with the Lead Pipe article, referenced above, provide different tradeoffs.  (Disclosure: one is my employer,  They vary in who hosts the files, whether libraries are free to make copies, whether DRM is applied, and what legal terms govern the use of the ebooks. This gives each of them a unique set of values tradeoffs. In general, they offer libraries more options in terms  of sharing, preservation, and privacy.  However, right now, all emerging models are limited in terms of access.  Some are theoretical or in a prototype stage, so they don’t offer any content yet. Others require libraries to negotiate themselves for content access, rather than outsourcing this to a distributor. While this puts libraries in a better position to advocate for their values, it also means more work.

I believe it’s important for libraries to do this kind of work. We need to have passionate, engaged conversations, with our eyes open, about which values we most want to defend in the ebook fray — and which we’re willing to compromise on. We need to consider which of many imperfect models offer the best tradeoffs for enacting library values. And we need to do this, not just in service to the patrons of 2012, but to the patrons of 2020 as well. How do the choices we make today affect their options for private, shared, lasting, accessible ebooks?

Vernor Vinge spoke about libraries at Midwinter 2010, characterizing them as “guardians of the past, handmaidens of the future”. Indeed, they are. But our ebook choices, and the different values tradeoffs they represent, rewrite that quote. Will we be active, thoughtful guardians of the future?  Can we remain in service to the best parts of our past?

Andromeda Yelton is a member of the founding team at, where she does library outreach, web development, and communications.  She writes and speaks about library technology and personal branding, is active in LITA, and is a 2011 ALA Emerging Leader.



  1. Susan Shrubb says:

    Thanks Andromeda. This is a very thought-provoking, well-argued and heartfelt piece. So glad someone on Twitter directed me to it. Now I’ll share it myself.

  2. Jacqueline Seewald says:

    As a retired librarian, author, and library trustee, I am glad to see libraries ordering books in a variety of formats: hardcover, large print, trade, paperback and now ebook. This provides patrons with many excellent choices.

  3. Mary Danko says:

    Great article. I find myself pondering these kinds of questions all the time! Some others have been dogging me over the last year!

    Because of the privacy issues of eBooks I often wonder on how it will affect our collection development in the future for public libraries. When it comes to topics of a sensitive nature, will that mean we will only buy these kinds of books as a hard copy book where we can assure some degree of privacy? What kinds of topics are sensitive? That may vary from community to community. What is our obligation in offering these kinds of books in the various formats?

    What is our obligation in educating and alerting our patrons that their reading habits may be monitored? If Amazon can have a “Buy This Book” banner on every page of an eBook, should public libraries insist that a banner reading “Your Reading Habits Are Being Monitored Right Now” on every page?

    • Thanks for chiming in! These are exactly the kind of question I want to hear more of us discussing more openly. Do any readers have any ideas on this front?

  4. T. Rorapaugh says:

    Having someone articulate library values is refreshing and rejuvenating to this 40-year library veteran. However, as local and national politicians mouth platitudes about “American” values, I hear nothing about sharing; in fact, I hear much the opposite, as if sharing had never happened throughout the history of this country. Following this line of thought (which I have heard in many venues for many years, as in, “Everything is online now, so we don’t need libraries anymore”), library budgets are cut, giving us less chance to demonstrate our values.

    Purchasing access to knowledge will impoverish our patrons (the general population) and kill us off as democratic institutions. Is that really what people want in 2012? Is that what the people of 2020 would want? Ms. Yelton raises some excellent questions in this article, but it’s up to us to articulate these concerns locally, with patrons as well as with politicians, in order to arrive at some actionable answers.

  5. Liz Calafiore says:

    I am writing as a reader, not a librarian. Retired now, I was an middle school English teacher, love books, and have always been interested in all things books. (Sorry grammar sticklers.). I have kept track of the e-book battles. I have a Nook and iPad, and because of my worsening eyesight, that’s how I read books today. I loved the fact that you explored the question of values in your article. It seems that we are at a precipice if not a slippery slope. The choices made today will shape the accesibility of e-books through libraries for years to come. The 5 values you list is for libraries. I’d add one more, one for the vendors, profit, or in other words cost to the libraries. I’ll close with one statement and one question. In our worsening economy, businesses continue to take as much profit as they can. How will libraries cope with tightening budgets and still afford the technology e-books require as well as the e-books themselves? I won’t even get into the issue of servicing poor communities. That’s another serious issue.

    • I do work for a for-profit company, and I think the question is a little more complicated than that. There certainly are companies that care about maximizing short-term profit, but there are others that are content to have a sustainable model that lets them keep the lights on, and others that may be concerned with maximizing profit but take a longer-term view (e.g. recognize that bleeding your customers dry today might mean you don’t have any tomorrow). Companies’ incentives are complex and variable — I find this is *especially* something that characterizes publishing; a Big 6 and an indie are in very different situations and evaluate incentives differently — it does no good to paint them all with the same brush.

      That said, I *do* think that all companies are going to take libraries’ willingness to pay for their services as an indication that they value those services and are likely to keep paying for them. If libraries say they can’t afford something but keep buying it, what they’re really saying is that they *can* afford it, and the purchasing decisions speak a lot louder than the words. I hope that libraries, vendors, and publishers continue engaging in dialogue — I think we all still have a lot to learn from one another — but I also hope libraries will speak with their purchases, as they decide which of those competing interests matter most in their local context.

  6. This is by far the clearest-thinking piece on this topic I’ve come across. I’m an MLIS student researching how libraries are managing ebooks differently from print titles.

    The issue of ownership vs licensing that you mention seems crucial to me. We’ve seen how this works with subscription databases re: academic journals. On a practical level it works passably well, but as a model it doesn’t seem sustainable for the long term. That journal that you were accustomed to accessing through the library website may disappear overnight with little or no warning. I don’t see who is being served in such an unstable environment.

    If libraries don’t own ebooks available through their catalog, then they forego the right of first sale, right? a foundational principle of lending libraries. So where does that leave us? As just another competitor alongside Amazon and Barnes and Noble?

    The essay has me thinking about alternative models. Should the ALA and member institutions create a publishing division for digital content? We would at least retain some rights to that content as publisher.

    Thank you for a very thought-provoking essay.

    • You’re welcome! I’d love to hear what sorts of alternative models you have in mind. FWIW ALA does have several publishing divisions (TechSource, Neal Schuman, e.g.) and they do publish digital content. I’m not entirely clear on how the licensing for that works (which is sort of embarrassing since I’ve written some of it). But that only affects the digital content published by ALA, of course; the vast majority of digital content is published by other people, and even if ALA wants to get into the business of republishing it in library-friendly digital formats, it’s unlikely to get the rights to very much of it. (The complexity, expense, and time that rights negotiation takes is a big running theme at

      Again, would love to hear more of your thoughts!

  7. I still can’t believe the 26 maximum check-out restriction. I know that I am guilty of checking materials out on a whim hoping to read them, but often returning them unread. Since it doesn’t cost me anything I don’t mind doing that. Knowing that an e-book has a maximum number of check-outs will make me want to check them out even less because I would hate to tick-off one of a limited number of check-outs without actually reading the book.

  8. I swear I posted this the other day but I don’t see it here. Maybe there is an approval process and it’s still pending. If that’s the case, disregard this duplicate post.

    I can’t believe vendors are putting a maximum number of check-out restriction on e-books. I know that as a library patron I’ll check out materials on a whim and often return them unread if I never get around to reading them. I don’t mind because it doesn’t cost me anything. I’ll be hesitant to check out e-books if I think there is a chance I’ll never get around to reading them because I’d hate to use up one of the limited check-outs for no reason. If 26 people like me do that, the money spent on that copy was wasted.

  9. GREAT and AWESOME blog. you say that American reader but interest of eBooks or number of readers has been spread pan world due to its easiest portability and accessibility.

  10. Shift! Make a new model. Set a new, compatable, and workable standard. Show some leadership in reading access and delivery. Isn’t this OUR job? If publishers won’t budge, move our readers in a new direction around publisher gridlock.

    Come on, the music industry should have taught us something about this situation.

  11. KnowledgeHunter says:

    It has been hard convincing young people that although they have bought a CD or DVD, they do not own the right to make copies and give them to friends. I fear electronic books will fall into the same black holes, as younger people become experts of IT manipulation ( at 14 or 15 these days). Although I love the tactile sense of holding an old favourite, looking at it on my shelf and lovingly suggesting a friend or relative read my special friends, maybe in the future this practice will look different. Though how will I be able to remember old favourites if I have “returned” my electronic copy? But what I fear most is the loss of the independent publisher, with interesting, challenging or sometimes just plain weird titles. I am not able to scan an electronic collection the same way that I walked along a bookshelf, flicking open a dust jacket and skimming down the blurb. Yes, we all need to learn new ways of doing things.