eBook Options for Libraries

Viable ebook options either provide libraries with ownership privileges or are free of digital rights management (DRM) software, ideally both. DRM is an inherently flawed technology that can be replaced either by creating better software or, more likely, by developing models that enable libraries to acquire ebooks and authors, editors, and others involved in publishing to get paid for their work. This is a draft and an outline. The material on this page will soon be published as a narrative.

Options (columns are sortable)

Name Ownership DRM-free Copyright/License Source Distribution Format Cost Examples
Open Library Yes No Print-based books digitized by Open Library and converted to eBooks. Open Library has also bought ebooks directly from a few publishers. Hosted by Open Library: a set of over 200,000 ebooks is available for “in library” lending, and a set of 10,000 is available for “open lending” ePub, PDF, in-browser Free Over 1,000 participating libraries
Unglue.it Yes Yes Rightsholders are paid to relicense their work Any digital format Any Initially crowdsourced in order to meet rightsholder’s asking price, then free to anyone Oral Literature in Africa by Ruth A. Finnegan
Sneakernet Model Yes Yes Any eBook distributor or “DIY” Read-only USB drives Any Price of eBook and price of USB drive None yet, but presently viable
Steampunk Model Yes Yes Digital-only texts purchased by libraries and printed as paper-based books Standard model used currently for paper-based books Paper Price of eBook and price of printing None yet, but presently viable
DIY Model Yes Depends on Distribution and Format Paper-based texts purchased and digitized by libraries, then circulated only in digital format (purchasing a single copy and circulating it in two or more formats would violate copyright) DRM-enabled hosting software or read-only USB drives Any Price of paper-based book, price of digitization, and price of distribution method None yet, but presently viable
Open Source/DRM Hybrid Model Yes Both Any eBook distributor or “DIY” Library-hosted, open source (MySQL/VuFind) and DRM-enabled commercial (Adobe Content Server) software ePub, PDF, in-browser (ebooks hosted via Adobe Content Server are not available on Kindle) eBooks (25–45% publisher discounts);
Adobe Content Server ($10,000 one-time license; $1,500 annual maintenance; 8 cents per checkout);
Public Domain/ Creative Commons/ Open Source (Free)
Douglas County (Colorado) Libraries and the MARMOT Library Consortia
Library License Yes Depends on Distribution and Format Rightsholders agree to relicense their work To be determined Any To be determined Not yet viable
Unlimited Content License Model Yes Yes Rightsholder is paid to provide files, which are accessed without limits or returns by authenticated cardholders Library-hosted, open source software (SOPAC/Drupal) Any, including streaming or downloaded audio and video, plus PDF and ePub Negotiated with rightsholder Magnatune at Ann Arbor District Public Library
State Redistribution Model No Yes Authors paid based on the cube root of popularity of their publications Any. Sharing would be legal, and widespread sharing would be in the author's best interest Any Authors or publishers can charge what they wish for copies obtained directly from them Not yet viable (requires government intervention)
Portability Model Yes No Any eBook distributor (State Library of Kansas obtained permission from publishers to transfer copies between hosting vendors) Vendor-hosted, DRM-enabled software (currently Adobe Content Server) All but PC, Nook, and Kindle Negotiated with Vendor 3M Cloud Library at the State Library of Kansas and Baker & Taylor's Axis 360 at King County Library System
Publisher Hosting Model Yes Yes Publisher Publisher-hosted software PDF or in-browser Prices posted or negotiated with vendor Publishers who have sold DRM-free ebooks to OhioLINK: ABC-CLIO, Gale, Oxford University Press, Sage, Springer, and Wiley


Introduction (Draft)

Perhaps the most pressing issue in American libraries today is the need to serve the rapidly increasing percentage of people who own ebook readers and tablet computers. According to a January 23, 2012 report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, "The number of Americans owning at least one of these digital reading devices jumped from 18% in December to 29% in January." If libraries wish to serve people who own these devices while also upholding the core values that best serve readers (e.g., intellectual freedom and preservation), they need to develop ebook practices and software that complement one another.

The only ebook options that uphold libraries' core values either provide libraries with ownership rights for the authorized copies they purchase and circulate or are free of digital rights management (DRM) software, ideally both. DRM is an inherently flawed technology that can be replaced either by creating better software or, more likely, by developing models that enable libraries to acquire ebooks and authors, editors, and others involved in publishing to get paid for their work. By analyzing every existing model that either involves ownership or is DRM-free, people who are interested in libraries can develop a consensus around realistic and efficient practices, and can create and adapt software to support these practices.

See also:

  • The Publication Standards Project (along with a two-part issue of A List Apart on digital publication standards)
  • North Carolina State University Libraries Value Statement for the Scholarly Ebook Marketplace
  • International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) "initial statement of requirements for a potential 'lightweight content protection' technology"
  • Andromeda Yelton's talk at the 2012 Computers in Libraries conference
  • Why do libraries matter when it comes to eBooks?

    Why should anyone care if libraries own authorized copies?

    Why does DRM matter?

    Brief notes on companies and models that are not included in the table

    How does library-based technology figure into ebooks?

    Notes on the DIY Model

    Notes on the Library License

    Notes on Open Library

    Notes on the Open Source/DRM Hybrid Model

    Notes on the Portability Model

    Notes on the Publisher Hosting Model

    Notes on the Sneakernet Model

    Notes on the State Redistribution Model

    Notes on the Steampunk Model

    Notes on Unglue.it

    Notes on the Unlimited Content License Model

    Additional Resources


    Thanks to Michael Bills, Jo Budler, Tim Coates, Shea Crow, Marin Foster, Jeff Goldenson, Amber Kiepe, Jesse Koennecke, Jamie LaRue, Robert Miller, Mary Minow, Eli Neiburger, Michael Porter, John Saylor, Karen Schneider, Monique Sendze, Ari Shanok, Kate Sheehan, Richard Stallman, Katy White, and Andromeda Yelton (and more to come) for their help with my research.

    Last Updated: June 19, 2012