Thank you Harper Collins (for making the path forward a little clearer) 27

Note from Michael – I’m deep in two projects today  and tomorrow and haven’t had much time to catch up on the hubub with Harper Collins and ebooks. I can say that I agree with Justin’s take on the potential and promise of promoting content creation, access to technology and building the community memory (whatever community it might be – civic, academic, education) as a big part of our future in libraries. I appreciate Justin’s hard work and insights.


The news about HarperCollins placing loaning caps on ebooks in the Overdrive catalog—known as #hcod on Twitter—gobbled up my Twitter feed last Friday afternoon.  On one hand, I knew some publisher was going to pull this stunt, so I wasn’t shocked. On the other, I learned two things about libraries and the profession in general.

First, the lending-digital-goods jig is up. With DRM, publishers have found a way to cut out libraries and used booksellers. This kind of greed is absurd when you consider how much business libraries give the major book publishers. The average annual teen book budget I’ve worked with over the years at a few different libraries is $20,000—and that’s often one of the smaller pieces of the pie. Adult public library book budgets for systems serving upwards of a million people range from a cool $1 to $2 million. And let’s remember: libraries don’t ever return books. The obvious solution to the HarperCollins slight is to stop buying its wares. The lack of library cash flow will speak loudly. Also, no more booktalking HC’s backlist or generating word of mouth, the rumored force behind best sellers. You’re grooming your next Neil Gaiman, HC? Wonderful! Good luck making him or her a star without our readers advisors and community centers, where people can talk about what their discovering in the stacks.

Now, let’s all quit being shocked that the ebook loaning cap happened and take the long view of digital goods in libraries. Two of the so-called Big Six book publishers already refuse to lend ebooks to libraries, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster. Overdrive, the vendor involved in the HC incident, is a pile of garbage in terms of usability. Don’t believe me? Read this comic.

Tell me you haven’t run into this problem before. As a Teen Librarian, I’m working with the one-click-and-the-file-saves-to-your-computer generation. Do they use Overdrive now? No. Will they later? Doubtful, if the interface and DRM remain. Does this bode well for the future of library services and literacy? For an answer, look at what’s happened with digital music products for libraries. Like ebooks, they are locked up in crazy DRM or come with an insanely high price tag. Let’s not even get into databases.

ZT IPv6 software tool: try this calculator

The second thing I learned from this incident is that the library world is terrible at advocating for itself. DRM and greedy publishers are here to stay. No number of tweets, emails, or blog posts is going to change their minds. If HC and other publishers in their wake want to cut us out of the ebook market, let them—it gives us a chance to do what we need to do, that is, reinvent ourselves. REVOLUTION!

What do I mean by “revolution”? Let’s use this slap in the face as an opportunity to make libraries modern institutions. For a while now, we’ve loaned popular materials like DVDs in our communities. To many people, libraries are like free versions of Blockbuster. Meanwhile, our unique local collections are hidden away, either hard to browse or physically out of reach. Instead of giving patrons access to cutting-edge technology they can use to create original works and teaching them how to use it, we give them basic Internet connections so they can watch YouTube clips and Facebook themselves into oblivion. We’ve become lazy, boring; extensions of people’s living rooms, essentially. 

And now that we’re being squeezed out of lending popular materials like ebooks, what do we lend out?  The answer is simple: we turn to our community to create the content that we collect.  We “check out” distinctive experiences and educational opportunities to our patrons instead of the Twilight saga ad nauseam. We become the go-to place for people to record music, film movies, write original stories, and do anything else creative, educational, and life-improving.

We then take these works and make like libraries and catalog, store, and share them. Sure, we may only have one or two ebook copies of James Patterson’s crapfest, but look at the awesome content we’re encouraging our community to create! The best part? It’s one-of-a-kind material that we can now share easily with the world. The other rad part? We’re empowering our patrons to become creators instead of consumers.

Finally, the first person to say, “But my library doesn’t have the money to do this kind of stuff!” in the comments section loses. It’s easy. 

As for my take on DRM, cut and paste what Cory Doctorow has said and put it in my mouth because I feel the exact same way. It’s a bad, ugly thing. His post on the #hcod debacle was brilliant from start to finish, but this chunk of gooey goodness keeps on repeating in my mind:

And that’s why libraries should just stop buying DRM media for their collections. Period. It’s unsafe at any speed.  I mean it. When HarperCollins backs down and says, “Oh, no, sorry, we didn’t mean it, you can have unlimited ebook checkouts,” the libraries’ answers should be “Not good enough. We want DRM-free or nothing.” Stop buying DRM ebooks. Do you think that if you buy twice, or three times, or ten times as many crippled books that you’ll get more negotiating leverage with which to overcome abusive crap like this? Do you think that if more of your patrons come to rely on you for ebooks for their devices, that DRM vendors won’t notice that your relevance is tied to their product and tighten the screws?

Cory’s got it right: stop giving them our money. Instead of buying 80 copies of Dan Brown’s bound schlock, buy some cheap netbooks, toss on some open-source software that will turn patrons into creators, and lend them out. Invest in your community instead of bleeding time and money on ebook garbage.

In no way am I the first person to ever say something along these lines:
Thank you DOK Library Concept Center and Eli Neiburger (watch #1 and #2)

-Post by Justin Hoenke, Tame the Web Contributor

27 thoughts on “Thank you Harper Collins (for making the path forward a little clearer)

  • Chris Sauder

    Thanks for posting this Justin. I agree, it just feels like libraries are being strangled out of existence by DRMed content. The assault on the first-sale doctrine has been ongoing for about 10 years now, but this one just seems like some sort of final straw that has librarians so up in arms. The fact that HarperCollins used an “OverDrive Partner Library Update from Steve Potash” email as a Trojan Horse to launder the TOS changes. Where was the press release on their website? Where was the conversation with libraries about the upcoming changes? I don’t recall seeing any discussion of the upcoming change on librarian blogs. My collection development manager and OverDrive consortium members heard nothing about the change.I think the lack of discussion is telling as to what they ultimately think of libraries.

    As for the future of libraries, Aaron Schmidt had a post last year about Finland’s content-creation libraries. That example really stuck with me and underscores the fact that we are closer to our communities than the publishers and have built up more goodwill with our patrons and our communities. Maybe this whole thing will cause libraries to begin to more fully harness this good will in creative ways beneficial to both our patrons and our communities.

  • Chris Sauder

    Should be: The fact that HarperCollins used an “OverDrive Partner Library Update from Steve Potash” email as a Trojan Horse to launder the TOS changes is troubling to me.

  • Matt Hamilton

    I couldn’t agree more, Justin. We have so much potential at our fingertips and we too often follow a fast food mentality rather than being the gourmet kitchen of the community.

  • Justin Hoenke Post author

    Chris: Thank you for sharing the Aaron Schmidt link. I haven’t read that one yet, but that’s the kind of stuff I love to see! The whole situation does look troubling to me as well. The way they announced it? Totally lame. I’d like to think of this moment as the turning point for libraries…this is where our importance is shown and our voice is heard!

    Matt: “we too often follow a fast food mentality rather than being the gourmet kitchen of the community.” I want to go back in time and put that into this post! What a great way of looking at it!

  • JP

    Good article, and great shout out to Eli, patron saint of He’s a true prophet.

    Obviously, DRM goes far beyond ebooks. As we both know, video game DLC is DRM’d content that we can’t even “get around” by pirating via a torrent.

    Also, my revolution sounds more like this:

  • Jan Holmquist

    A very inspiring read – Thank you Justin. I really like the thoughts here…
    and the good part is that we can actually make this revolution happen.

    Copenhagens public libraries have made Demoteket (In Danish)

    Demoteket lend what the patrons produce themselves. Poetry, comics, music, films. It is a very cool project. The collection now contains more than 200 original works.

    Some pictures from Demoteket here

  • Nicholas Schiller

    The question this is raising in my mind is: are libraries at all prepared for information without publishers?

    After all, we have publishers in the first place because they solved two problems in the information supply-chain. First, they owned printing presses and employed skilled type-setters. Together, these two things enabled the production of books. Second, they had a supply-chain logistical organization that could organize, store, and deliver these books to the libraries, readers, or stores that wanted to buy them.

    Now, these publishers are feeling the squeeze. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that they provide solutions to problems that have been rendered trivial by electronic information. What service does the publisher provide in a born-digital environment? Consider the case of indie author Amanda Hocking: She sells books through the Kindle store w/o the intermediation of a publisher. Apparently, she’s making a much better living than most authors under contract to Harper Collins et. al.

    So this raises a question: are libraries prepared for an information business model that does not include publishers? Or are we interdependent with publishers? Are libraries, at their core, organizations that pool public funds to buy content from publishers and make this content available to our patrons? If we are, I’m not sure there is a role for us once publishers go away. If we aren’t, we’ve got some work to do to redefine our roles in terms of information instead of the containers that information come in.

  • Michael

    Nicholas – I think some of the best libraries are those that are actively exploring services that do not require containers or content provided by publishers. Justin cited DOK and Jan shared links to libraries in Denmark. This is a model I’d like to see adopted by more libraries in the states.

    Thanks to all for commenting on this post!

  • Ellen

    Jan – thank you for the example of Demoteket.

    It is also about libraries as content creators and as co-creators with the community. This is particularly apparent in local studies, and it is critical in the area of local studies as well. In the past (in a previous job) I have taken lots of photographs of the local government area where I worked as a way of recording the changes in the community, and this was part of my work. These photographs now form part of the particular library’s collection. The collection includes many photographs of building sites, but they were a way of recording change, and recording and organising for other people to be able to access.

    Mal Booth put these ideas really well in a presentation he gave at [email protected] Metcalfe last year – you can see his slides and read his ideas here

    But also it is about co-creation and making content available. The coming library hack in Australia and New Zealand is encouraging co-creation and community creation of content based on data sets from national and state libraries.

    Maybe there is also a place for strengthening the role of World Cat as a source place for finding out about free e-book content, just in the same way it is making library content available (this is a long bow).

  • thewikiman

    Amazing post Justin!

    It seems the publishing industry hasn’t learnt much from the music industry. Locking stuff down doesn’t seem fit for purpose in 2011 – it’s the fearful approach rather than the open approach which is out of sync with our times.

    Anyway, your comments about providing a space for artists to create (I’m paraphrasing) reminded me of the UnLibrary, in London. Have you heard of it? Worth checking it out:

  • Ian

    Interesting post…although I’d differ on my experience with downloading an e-audiobook from Overdrive. That said, I download them onto my iPhone rather than my computer. This takes around 3 steps and is quite easy all things considering. And one of those steps are required of the library authority rather than the software (logging in to the system).

    Otherwise, I’m with you all the way, especially re DRM.

  • Justin Hoenke

    I want to say thank you to everyone who has commented/read/posted in reply to this post. I am still reading/thinking and hope to have a follow up to this post sometime in the near future! I want to take it beyond just “saying” that this is a possible idea to go forward and actually show some more examples of how libraries are actually implementing this very idea. If you have any examples, post away! I will be the collector!

  • Mike

    Great post! A lot of the dialogue around the HC situation centers on how to fix things. The reality is they simply may not be fixable and looking forward past this may be the wise thing to do.

  • Justin Hoenke


    Personally, I try to use a lot of open source software. For at work stuff, I’m using Windows (not my choice) as my OS and Chrome/everything else Google for what I do. At home, I alternate between my laptop which runs Ubuntu, an iPad, and a CR-48 Chrome netbook

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