Recently, a director of a public library wrote to the Calix listserv asking for information about charging non-residents for library cards.  Below is my response to her.

Dear N.,

Since reading your questions I’ve been reflecting on the ramifications of charging for public library cards. Today, I read a blog entry by Clinton’s former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, about the problem with public/private enterprises and decided to post it here, with a few comments, in case it helps to clarify the potential repercussions of charging for library cards.

Reich writes:

What defines a society is a set of mutual benefits and duties embodied most visibly in public institutions — public schools, public libraries, public transportation, public hospitals, public parks, public museums, public recreation, public universities, and so on.

Public institutions are supported by all taxpayers, and are available to all. If the tax system is progressive, those who are better off (and who, presumably, have benefited from many of these same public institutions) help pay for everyone else.

“Privatize” means pay-for-it-yourself. The practical consequence of this in an economy whose wealth and income are now more concentrated than any time in 90 years is to make high-quality public goods available to fewer and fewer.

Much of what’s called “public” is increasingly a private good paid for by users — ever-higher tolls on public highways and public bridges, higher tuitions at so-called public universities, higher admission fees at public parks and public museums.

Charging non-residents for a public library card is in effect privatizing the library for non-residents. It will “make high-quality public goods available to fewer and fewer.” An argument could be made that people who can afford to travel to a library in a town where they are not a resident can also afford a library card. However, often the closest library is not in the town of residence. Or the closest library is not open during hours when people can get to it. This is especially true of people working several jobs to make ends meet.

By charging for library cards, in the short term, you may generate a little extra revenue for your library. In the long term though, this will make even more resources available to people who already have more resources, which results in further concentrating wealth. If you think that further concentrating of wealth and resources is what your community and this country needs, then maybe charging for library cards is a good idea. If not, then maybe it isn’t such a good idea. Personally, I think it’s a bad idea.

That’s my opinion. I hope it’s helpful.

Best regards,
P.S. Robert Reich’s entire blog post, posted January 4, 2012, can be seen here.


Below is a letter that I sent to the Calix Listserv about the Google Book Settlement.


Here’s a link to an excellent opinion piece about the Google settlement, by Robert Darnton.  Darnton advocates for a digital public library rather than Google’s proposed commercial venture.


In 2009, Darnton wrote a longer essay contextualizing the Google Book Project within the history of US copyright law.  In his essay, Darnton frames copyright law as originally striking a delicate balance between private profitability and the common good.  Gradually, the copyright law has shifted out of balance toward the interests of private profitability.  This essay can be found here:


What Darnton does not discuss at length is that digital works are often covered by End User License Agreements (EULA’s) rather than their print counterparts, which are subject to the Right of First Sale.  EULA’s are more like the Wild West in terms of the law; the owners of the digital rights largely set their own terms.  If I purchase a print copy of a book, regardless of the publisher or vendor, the book is subject to the same copyright laws.  In contrast, EULA’s for digital books can vary between different publishers and even between vendors.  This already has dramatic implications for libraries as Harper Collins recently demonstrated when they decided to only allow their ebooks to be “borrowed” 26 times before the license needs to be repurchased.

In the digital landscape we are now entering, libraries will purchase licenses rather than purchasing actual books.  This means we will not actually own the etexts we are purchasing, rather we will license them.  This gives the actual owners (i.e. the publishers and vendors) more power and potentially greater profits at the expense of the common good.

Consider this for example: Last week, Amazon made the ebook lending site Lendle non-operational before restoring its operational status, on the condition that Lendle disable a feature.  Lendle allowed users to lend a Kindle ebook for up to two weeks, permitting only one loan per book.  According to Amazon’s page describing the Kindle, this is permitted.  In essence, they were creating a digital lending library. Lendle even created an extra provision to protect Amazon: before borrowing a book, Lendle users needed to loan a book.  Nevertheless, because Lendle did not “serve the principal purpose of driving sales of products and services on the Amazon site,” Amazon decided to shut it down until it submitted to Amazon’s demands, which it immediately did.

Here we see the impact of not owning the books we read or lend.  A vendor or a publisher can abruptly limit the functionality of what we’ve licensed.  In the case of Lendle, Amazon didn’t actually take away the ebooks, instead they revoked Lendle’s access to computer code necessary to run Lendle.  This brings up an interesting problem, even if we have a license that says we have access to the etexts, if the vendor can take away or disable the program that is necessary to read those files, then the files effectively become useless.

As more library loans are of purely digital media, we will need to respond to a fluid set of limits imposed on us by vendors and publishers as they work to maximize profits.  In contrast librarians work to maximize the common good.  Despite the Google decision, overall, I believe the balance is shifting even further toward control by for-profit businesses.

Do others feel that the balance is shifting toward for-profit and if so, what can we do about it?  According to a couple of publishers mentioned in a New York Times article, libraries account for 7 to 9 percent of their total revenue.  Collectively we have a significant voice.  Do people have ideas about how we can band together and leverage that voice?

Finally, if others disagree that the balance is shifting toward the for- profit, then what are some examples that have influenced your thinking?

Best regards,
Ethan Annis
Head of Access Services
Dominican University of California

The iPhone app Word Lens translates text using the phone’s camera and OCR software. For example, the words in a sign in Spanish, viewed through the Word Lens, appears in English. The translations are literal and it only works between English and Spanish but its conceptually very promising. Here’s a demonstration:

Telegraphing Modernized

In the past, people paid by the character to telegraph information to distant locations. Only concise bursts of information denoting major transitions were telegraphed. With 160 character limits on IM’s, 140 characters per Tweet and 420 characters to update a Facebook status, in some sense we’ve returned to the telegraphic economy of characters but without the economy of updates!

This piece, titled Two Buck Book, by Allegra Burke, consisting of a recycled New Columbia Encyclopedia, evoked a lot of thinking about the value of reference books.  Allegra apparently paid two dollars for this book, which is listed at $140 and I paid $59 for it years ago.  The New Columbia is commonly considered the best single volume encyclopedia in the English language.

Two years ago, I discarded my copy of The New Columbia.  I had decided that the Wikipedia entries were superior to their print counterparts.

Wikipedia has the advantage of being continually updated by thousands of contributors.  Any print encyclopedia is already out of date by the time the first copy is sold.  Wikipedia is also many times more comprehensive than any print encyclopedia but is easier to use and Wikipedia is about as accurate as any print counterpart.

I wonder how long it will be until seeing a reference book or perhaps any printed book will be like seeing a scroll.

Twice before I have written about the effects of a non-neutral net in the abstract.  This week, courtesy of News Corp., which owns Fox, we have seen an example of what a non-neutral net would look like.  Recently Cablevision and News Corp. could not come to terms regarding how much Cablevision would pay for airing Fox television programs. With no agreement in place, Fox programming no longer appeared on Cablevision.  In addition, Fox blocked Cablevision subscribers from accessing any Fox content on Hulu’s free service, which is partially owned by Fox.  In this manner, News Corp. prevented Cablevision subscribers from simply streaming Fox’s programming from Hulu.  This gave News Corp. leverage in its negotiations with Cablevision.  In effect, News Corp. said that if Cablevision subscribers wanted Fox programming they should either reach an agreement or go to a different service provider.

Technically, the Hulu content runs over a neutral net.  The network over which the content flows is neutral.  The content provider is preventing certain users from accessing its content, based on their ISP.  Effectively though, this is like a non-neutral net.  Certain customers are not given access to certain content.  Incidentally, the customers who paid for Hulu’s premium service had uninterrupted access to all content.

In effect, Fox’s action hurts Fox as much as it hurts Cablevision.  The free content on Hulu is funded by advertising.  By blocking Cablevision customers, Fox eliminates some of its audience.  The blocking has the greatest impact on the customers though.  As mentioned in an earlier post, when access to part of the Internet is restricted, the customers lose.  Imagine if Cablevision had a problem getting a loan from Bank of A and retaliated by blocking access to the Bank’s website.  Existing customers could not access the website and potential new customers would not be as likely to open an account with the bank…  As the Internet’s importance increases, the potential impact of restricting access increases dramatically.

A book buyer in the US owns any printed book that s/he purchases.  The owner does not have the right to copy the book but besides that the purchaser can legally loan the book, sell the book, etc.  In contrast, a person who downloads a book on a Kindle or some other form of eReader, is licensing the content.  According to the Amazon Kindle: License Agreement and Terms of Use, the content is restricted to personal use.

In the US, the First-Sale Doctrine, a limitation of the copyright law, gives buyers full ownership of books and many other purchases.  Currently, that law is under assault from several directions.  On September 10, 2010, the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court, in Vernor v. Autodesk, said that the First Sale Doctrine does not apply to software, which is licensed rather than sold.  This is problematic because libraries loan software, such as language learning programs and video games.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation says that in the future even CD’s and DVD’s may no longer be subject to the First Sale Doctrine.

In the library world, where we loan materials, this is of great relevance because many licenses are for personal use only.  Libraries have been exploring the possibility of loaning Kindles and other eReaders preloaded with content.  Intuitively this makes sense.  Loaning a printed book or loaning a Kindle with the same content to one patron at a time seems like it should be equivalent.  But of course loaning something that is licensed for personal use only is  probably illegal.  Complicating matters further is that fact that many licenses provide different restrictions on content use.  So it could be legal to loan one type of eReader but not another type.

Sadly, as we move to a society that increasingly downloads content and gets our information from screens, this could become a larger problem for libraries.  As we offer more digital content, libraries’ content could gradually become more restricted by for profit publishers.

However, there are also other forces working against these potential upcoming restrictions.  Authors and artists are licensing their works using Creative Commons licenses and Open Source software is being written by numerous developers.  Cory Doctorow, the author of young adult fiction who has a book reviewed elsewhere in this blog, uses Creative Commons licenses on  all of his work produced since 2003.  The text of Wikipedia uses a Creative Common License.  The Firefox browser, the Linux OS, Open Office, Android and the Evergreen Integrated Library System are all examples of Open Source software.

As librarians, I believe our efforts should work to mitigate the potential upcoming restrictions from two angles.  First, we should try to work with publishers and resellers to get terms more favorable for libraries.  We should also work in the courts and Congress to get more favorable laws concerning digital rights for libraries.  The American Library Association presented arguments against the court’s decision in Vernor v. Autodesk, so we are already working on this but it seems we are gradually losing ground.  Second, we should support Creative Commons licenses and Open Source causes.  The entire spirit of the library is about sharing for the common good and that is also in the spirit of Open Source and Creative Commons.