May 24, 2018

Digital Content Is SO Broken

I don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that the e-book market is A World of Hurt for libraries. I don’t even know where to begin in listing the litany of damage that the ebook market presents for librairies. I mean, srsly.

But believe it or not, libraries are not the only ones getting royally screwed. It’s you and me, even simply as individual consumers.

Let’s say I want to read a particular book or watch a particular TV show. Where is it in digital form? Can I get it on my Kindle? My iPad? Do I launch iBooks on my iPad? Or the Kindle app? Or what? And TV is just as broken.

I’ve taken to writing down TV shows in which I’m interested and which platform I can stream them from. I’m not kidding. It’s a post-it on my desk. Lemme see…if I want to catch the latest episode of Revolution that would be Hulu+. But if I want to get caught up with Nikita, that would be Netflix. And The Newsroom? HBOgo. Oh, and Last Resort might be I think.

Today I tried to find a way to stream a show and basically the message was “check back”, like they were negotiating a contract then and there. Meanwhile, I’ve had content I thought I had access to disappear because the contract ran out. How the heck am I supposed to keep track of that?

I’d like to say that this is completely unacceptable, since it is. But who am I kidding? They have the content I seek and they can do whatever they want to with it. But at the same time, they are being stupid. I put up with whatever advertisements they want to add into the content in order to view it online. I really do.

Last night I tried to see what it would take to register on a site to get their content, and literally this is what I was faced with: “Are you eligible? [This content] is available through most providers, but not all. Click the drobdown button below, and cross your fingers. If you don’t see your provider, keep checking back.” What was listed in the dropdown box was one — exactly one — cable provider. In other words, if you weren’t a subscriber to that particular cable provider, well, you’re out of luck. There wasn’t even a provision to sign up there and then directly with the content provider. What’s up with that?

This is why digital content is so broken. I should, as a consumer, be able to buy access to whatever I want whenever I want it. And libraries should be able to do the same on behalf of their clientele. Period. Why is this so hard? Why is it so difficult for me — or a library on my behalf — to give someone some money?

Roy Tennant About Roy Tennant

Roy Tennant is a Senior Program Officer for OCLC Research. He is the owner of the Web4Lib and XML4Lib electronic discussions, and the creator and editor of Current Cites, a current awareness newsletter published every month since 1990. His books include "Technology in Libraries: Essays in Honor of Anne Grodzins Lipow" (2008), "Managing the Digital Library" (2004), "XML in Libraries" (2002), "Practical HTML: A Self-Paced Tutorial" (1996), and "Crossing the Internet Threshold: An Instructional Handbook" (1993). Roy wrote a monthly column on digital libraries for Library Journal for a decade and has written numerous articles in other professional journals. In 2003, he received the American Library Association's LITA/Library Hi Tech Award for Excellence in Communication for Continuing Education. Follow him on Twitter @rtennant.


  1. I tend to think that it’s because the owners have become obsessed with control, like another industry that recently had to be rescued by government investment and re-taught to make what customers want to buy, not necessarily what the industry wants to sell.

    Content owners need to recall that their income depends on offering what the buyer would like to buy, figure out what that actually is, and negotiate a price for it. And “what the customer would like to buy” includes, not just the content, but the means and terms of access. Telling the customer “take it or leave it” is never a good long-term strategy unless your objective is to gradually hand your market share over to new competitors.