Thursday, January 31, 2013

Reflections from Cuba - Ebooks and Libraries

I wrote the following on January 14, while vacationing in Cuba:

While I consider myself to be a cynical man, one deeply suspicious of the corporate agenda, my wife, a woman of sunnier disposition, recently suggested something that shocked even me.

We were reading poolside in Cuba, me with an e-reader lent to me by her sister, she with her physical book, when I questioned why two publishers, Simon and Shuster and Macmillan, do not sell their ebooks to libraries, and Penguin is only just beginning a test project with the New York City system,. Her theory took me aback, namely that the two publishers have the goal of weakening and ultimately destroying public libraries.

Initially I dismissed her speculation as cynically paranoid even by my own standards, asking her if this were true, why do they continue to sell their physical products to lending institutions? Her answer both surprised and unsettled me.

Arguing that ebooks are growing increasingly popular, Janice, a former librarian, suggested that the withholding of their virtual products is part of a long-term business plan to starve libraries of their resources and thus of their relevance to the tax-paying public. She posits that the reason they haven't removed their physical products from free public access is that such a move would be too obvious and provoke outrage from people who hold ready and equitable access to information to be a sacred trust, part of the social contract that underpins any democracy worthy of the name. Hence, like the slow boil of the frog, first comes the withholding of the ebooks, ever-growing in popularity, the aforementioned goal waiting to be realized in a not-too-distant future.

Is my wife correct in her dire prognostication? I obviously have no way of knowing. However, given that she is a woman of uncommon discernment, one whose judgement and advice I rely on and trust more than anyone else's, I am now very troubled by the prospect she has raised.

For further reading on this provocative subject, and to learn about the restrictions other publishers place on libraries' use of their ebooks, click here, here, and here.

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