American public and school libraries will now be able to lend digital copies of books via Amazon’s Kindle ecosystem of hardware ebook readers and software apps for desktop and mobile operating systems. But it’s not as marvelous as a quick read of the headlines might imply. Amazon isn’t opening up their catalog of Kindle titles. Rather, the Kindle connection is a deal between Amazon and OverDrive, the dominant digital book lending system used by over 11,000 public and school libraries in the United States. (The company doesn’t break library types out by category. There are over 9,000 discretely organized public library systems in America, but nearly 100,000 school libraries.)
Libraries contract with OverDrive, which in turn has negotiated licenses with publishers. OverDrive makes software for Mac OS X, Windows, and mobile platforms to provide limited-term use of checked-out items, much the same as a physical library loan. The firm started with locked WMA files for audiobooks, a format supported only under Windows. OverDrive added MP3 versions in 2008, long after the rise of the iPod, and, more recently, released iOS and other mobile apps to enable direct download and playback without syncing through iTunes. (In 2009, Matt Neuburg described his frustrations with OverDrive’s process of checking out audiobooks for Mac OS X in “A Silly Saga: How I Downloaded an Audio Book from My Library.” Annoyingly, OverDrive hasn’t improved the process in the last several years.)
The company started offering ebooks for loan and online viewing in the early 2000s, providing secured forms of Adobe PDF that, as with audiobooks, could expire to enable short-term loans. It later added Adobe’s secured EPUB format. This was a boon for mobile reading, although OverDrive’s own readers leave much to be desired. (Earlier this year, Michael Cohen described avoiding OverDrive’s app for iOS, and using the free Bluefire EPUB and PDF viewer instead in “OverDrive, Bluefire, and the EPUBlic Library,” 18 February 2011.)
The Kindle announcement is essentially a format extension, not a new deal between libraries and Amazon that would add hundreds of thousands of books to OverDrive’s collection. In most cases, libraries can now offer their existing OverDrive ebook collections in Kindle format as well as PDF and EPUB.
It’s worth noting that OverDrive’s licenses cover an exact number of simultaneous loans. That is, if a library purchased three ebook licenses and three patrons have “checked out” an ebook, no additional loans may be made until the original ones expire. Publishers are now starting to demand a maximum number of loans per purchased license — 26 in the case of Harper Collins books. This is supposed to simulate a physical book wearing out over time, as ridiculous as that sounds.
My local library system, the Seattle Public Library, has over 25,000 unique digital items to lend, many of which are licensed for just a single copy at a time. Of those, 18,000 may be borrowed in PDF format, 24,000 in EPUB format, and over 25,000 in Kindle format. (Most items are available as EPUB and Kindle, while a small number are just PDF and EPUB.)
The process to borrow a book at the Seattle Public Library’s site involves searching the catalog, selecting an item, and adding the Kindle version to your “cart,” a truly awkward metaphor — as Matt describes in his 2009 article — for assembling what you want to borrow. When you’ve assembled your cart, you go through a checkout process, after which you can download the chosen format.
Clicking the “Get for Kindle” button opens a new browser window in which you log into your Kindle account to confirm the loan. The book is automatically transferred to your preferred Kindle device, or queued for the next sync for a mobile or desktop app. After the loan is processed, Amazon shows other Kindle items that may be purchased. Not disclosed is whether either OverDrive or the library that referred the loan receives an affiliate commission for additional items purchased.
The Kindle checkout is the easiest way to borrow an ebook. The capability to read Kindle titles across all of Amazon’s free software and hardware readers is a boon, too. But the trouble — beyond OverDrive’s obtuse interface — is the limited selection. This move expands the devices for which libraries can lend books to patrons, not the number of titles available. I spent a good 15 minutes trying to find something worth borrowing in order to try out the process, and the selection is ruled by vampire, zombie, and self-help books. The next step to help libraries is to fund increases to their digital collections — and protest against publishers that are trying to require limited-loan licenses for their ebooks. Maybe we could enlist the help of the zombies.