The 12 percent of Americans who own e-readers don't likely overlap with those who need the library to access the Internet, but you don't need an e-reader to benefit from Kindle's partnership with OverDrive. Not only is a Kindle app available on most smartphones, but the Boston Public Library received a grant to buy Kindles in order to lend them to the general public. With e-books on their way to becoming widely accessible, libraries will be free to move more of their resources into digital materials, shed personnel, and become more like Newport Beach.
SAVE: KINDLE WILL BRING IN THE ELITE
No matter how great the gulf between those who can afford a Kindle and those who can't afford the Internet, each group benefits from the other's use of the public library. Many librarians see the OverDrive/Kindle partnership as a positive development.
Libraries exist to support the privileged as much as they do the unemployed, and e-books provide an incentive for the lucky few who own e-readers to visit their library's home page. This creates an opportunity for libraries to broadcast events and services to the more affluent members of their communities and furthers their aim of becoming vital community centers for their tax base.
By permitting remote access, OverDrive appeals to those accustomed to staying clear of the stacks in favor of downloading titles directly from Amazon. These patrons have myriad options in the way they acquire their reading material. By providing it on two platforms, libraries will maintain their relevance and staunch further attrition.
Appealing to the widest swath of e-book readers will also grant libraries more leverage with publishers. The partnership just might force the hands of Simon and Schuster and MacMillan to sell e-books to libraries, or HarperCollins to agree to more favorable terms.
Of course, this benefits Amazon as well. If the 88 percent of the populace who does not yet own an e-reader knows that they can borrow library books on a Kindle, perhaps they will be swayed to buy a Kindle over its competitors.
SAVE: THIS IS JUST THE FIRST STEP
All across the country, librarians are hard at work trying to fix the current e-book distribution model. Some, like those in Kansas, have forsaken OverDrive altogether in favor of new players in the e-book distribution game. Others, like the Boston Public Library, are augmenting OverDrive with smaller databases for local materials. Libraries, publishers, and OverDrive maintain an active dialogue through the International Digital Publishing Forum, a trade organization, to improve conditions.
A Web site called the Open Library, funded by the nonprofit organization the Internet Archive, has been gaining momentum. It aims to make every book available in digital form to every individual and institution. At present, it has almost three million available texts.
And OverDrive itself is sure to change. Some libraries like the BPL are pushing for simultaneous lending: instead of purchasing a "copy" of an e-book that, like an analog book, becomes inaccessible once someone checks it out, this model would make a title available to as many patrons who want to read it at any given time and charge the lending institution a use-based annual fee.
The current model for library digital book distribution might indeed be unsustainable, but at least all parties involved seem to be aware of it.
Eugenia Williamson can be reached at ewilliamson[a]phx.com.