Rothman on the National Digital Library

By [Friday, February 25th, 2011] at 1:20 pm

David H. Rothman, It’s Time for a National Digital-Library System, Chronicle Review (Feb. 24, 2011);

Not every library item can go online tomorrow with patrons charged no fees for access. Still, we can at least work toward that goal in a reasonable way. A compromise might be for best sellers and other popular offerings not to appear in the national digital-library system for a year or more after publication (at least not unless local and state systems pay extra to shorten or eliminate their patrons’ waiting time for desired e-titles, or unless those systems drastically reduce the actual loan durations on the most-sought items and offer links to stores and publishers to encourage borrowers to buy library-offered books and other content).

As a library user, I hate time windows and other access restrictions. But a realistic approach would preserve opportunities for bookstores and commercial rental services and help protect publishers’ income, a must no matter what the library system’s business model, if the system is to be affordable in the near future and include copyrighted material from major sources. For their part, both librarians and content providers will need to show more flexibility than they have so far. Today libraries own paper books with which they can more or less do as they please, short of, for example, copying them in ways that go beyond fair use. They may need to bend somewhat and accept some restrictions, as long as the public’s right to continual access is preserved.

But publishers will have to yield, too, by making more e-titles available to public libraries. Furthermore, publishers should be less zealous in their use of digital-rights management, technologies that limit access to digital content. Ideally, they will also spend less time lobbying for Draconian copyright laws, and more time working with libraries to create and promote cost-effective strategies to help libraries and themselves survive, with more revenue for all and less temptation for cash-strapped students and others to pirate books. A well-stocked national digital-library system could make content more easily available both legally and—for publishers—profitably.

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