eLending for the modern age?

xkcd - Sharing

“Sharing” by xkcd


This month we have two articles on the topic of interlibrary-loan practices for electronic information. While the practice has become common for individual articles or book chapters, libraries have been blocked from circulating eBooks for a number of reasons.

As Jennifer Jenkins mentions in her recent C&RL News article, Last sale? Libraries’ rights in the digital age, libraries are permitted to loan purchased physical copies of works under the “first sale” doctrine, an official part of copyright law. However, this provision does not apply to electronic works, and most publishing contracts actually specify the transaction in terms of a license of the material, rather than a purchase. Under these types of licences libraries have even less control over their electronic collections. Until recently, no academic institution has been ambitious enough to attempt a method of “lending” entire eBooks to consortial partners.

The gridlock over eBook lending may change if a new pilot program from Texas Tech University and the University of Hawaii-Manoa is successful. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Library Consortium Tests Interlibrary Loan of e-Books), the Greater Western Library Alliance partners have successfully recruited major academic publisher Springer to allow them to test a newly developed system for loaning eBooks via ILL.

The developers came up with a straightforward, frills-free solution. Using the web-based Occam’s Reader software, a lending library takes a stripped-down version of an e-book and loads it onto a secure web server. (Publisher metadata is removed in the process, Mr. Litsey says, to keep the feel of a print-book loan and—more important from a marketing perspective—as a compromise to preserve the potential sales appeal of publishers’ enhanced versions.)

The fact that universities and publishers are willing to work together to tackle the thorny issue of inter-library eLending is encouraging, since it has been a debacle from the moment the first eBook was created. And the approach is intriguing – as noted, the Occam’s Reader software passes only the raw content of the book to the inter-institutuion borrower, thus removing tools like bookmarking, note-taking, and citation management interoperability. The “owning” library is able to lend the whole book, and the publisher maintains a proprietary hold on the financial incentives that make eBooks more attractive to purchase (or subscribe to) in the first place.

As a media librarian at an institution that is moving to subscription-based acquisition of online streaming media collections, I have to wonder if a similar model could work for eLoaning videos. Like the Occam’s Reader model, there should be an easy way to serve a stripped-down video stream, without the fancy publisher features like interactive transcripts, clipping tools, playlists and annotations. Would Alexander Street Press, Docuseek2 contributors, or heavyweights like Swank be willing to negotiate contract terms so that we could lend individual films to partner institutions? Given the restrictive terms currently present in these licensing agreements, I have my doubts. But someone has to start the conversation in order for it to gain momentum.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see how the Occam’s Reader project influences policies and actions for other institutions and publishers. Ideally, libraries will be able to retain some kind of right-to-lend, even if the context justification happens differently than outlined via First Sale. After all, lending is what we are here for, and without the ability to lend between institutions, collections budgets will not be able to keep up with user needs. As much as voluntary cooperation is useful, without the rule of law to back up our actions, most institutions will be hesitant to break new ground into legal grey areas.

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