E-books and chained books

Lately I’ve been hearing about one of the disadvantages of commercial e-books (specifically, the kind sold by vendors like NetLibrary or Ebrary): you can’t lend them from one library to another. Dead-tree-based books can be ILL’d and shared among library consortia, but you can’t ship an e-book when it comes with restrictions about which users at which campuses can use it.

I was thinking about this, and it occurred to me that restricting the use of an e-book only to users from a given institution (and placing restrictions on copying and printing, as NetLibrary does) pretty much negates the benefits of putting the content online in the first place. Apart from making the text searchable, the great advantage of online access is that multiple people can access the same content from multiple places at the same time. Instead of 25 people waiting to get the library’s one copy of an in-demand title, they can all get to it.

Take away that, hedge the content in with restrictions, keep the content from circulating among libraries the way books have done since they invented ILL, and you’re left with something rather less convenient than reading a paper book. You can’t stick it in your bag and carry it around with you from one place to another*, you can’t loan it to someone else, and you’re most likely stuck reading it on an eye-tiring screen. It’s not just like a return to the print model; it’s like a return to the early modern chained books model, where books were attached to desks and shelves by a heavy chain to prevent people from stealing them. And who wants to go back to the days of book-chaining?**

And people wonder why e-books haven’t caught on. I don’t really see publishers changing their ways any time soon, though I do have hopes for the Open Library project; their public-domain books are downloadable, printable, free, and open to anyone from anywhere.

None of these are startlingly new observations, I know, at least not to anyone who deals with library collections. But they’ve been on my mind of late.

* Although colleges and universities are using proxy servers and the like to allow for off-campus access. Which helps. But it’s hard for a lot of users to figure out, and sometimes you just want to print the damn chapter so you can read it at your leisure on the subway or while eating dinner or wherever.
** Now I’m trying to think of a way to work in medieval girdle books as an analogue to portable reading devices, but the analogy will only go so far.

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