To Mooch? Library eBooks and loopholes.Posted: 18 Apr 2012
Last Sunday’s Ethicist column in the NYT’s featured a question about eBooks and the lending loopholes for Kindle users.
Through my public library, I can check out a book on my Kindle for 21 days. Then the system sends a signal to erase the book and make it available for someone else. But there’s a loophole: if my Kindle is offline, the book isn’t deleted and is still available for another reader. So if I need another day, I leave the Kindle offline and continue until I’m done. When I go back online, the book is deleted. I say that’s fine. But my co-worker says that I promised to return it after 21 days — just like a physical book — and I must honor that promise.
The Ethicist uses an excellent example to approach an answer to this question. To paraphrase: Suppose your physical library book is due on Sunday, but you do not return it until before the library opens on Monday as you know that it the book is not counted until then. Is your reading of the book on Sunday afternoon wrong? It seems rather clear that most people would say this is acceptable; your holding it through Sunday evening in no way impacts your agreement with the library (to return it in a certain amount of time) or hinders another person from checking it out.
However, I think that this question and how one answers it gets to another point about eBooks in libraries: the seemingly arbitrary idea of lending limits on something that is not subject to the same scarcity problem that a physical copy is. Leaving out the real world matters (libraries pay the publisher for rights to a certain number of eBooks, &tc, &tc…), limiting access to digital content feels strange and antithetical to the times we live in today. It feels like the dying swings of an institution trying to keep content “institutional” when everything in the world is pushing in the opposite direction – towards openness.
This is why I would expect that the co-worker, the one who wanted the woman posing the question to turn her Kindle on and allow her book to be deleted after 21 days, is probably in a small minority with her opinion. This worries me for another reason. On a certain level, agreeing with the woman’s use of the loophole says everything libraries need to know about patron’s view of lending limits on eBooks: it is an artificial limitation not worth full compliance.
This is a small but important point. Perceptions of libraries and librarians are changing. Information is no longer limited to the physical. It’s no longer hidden behind walls or cloistered in a room somewhere. What happens when patrons embrace this faster than libraries?
** I realize that there are important and difficult questions libraries need to deal with in regards to digital content and I do not mean to make a simple or reductive point. But, in the end, the point is both rather simple and reductive (maybe libraries need to get better at phrasing the issue?) for many people: making it difficult to access or imposing seemingly arbitrary limitations on content is not acceptable. Patrons, especially of the younger generation, will not even put up a fight about this. They will simply find what they need elsewhere, legal or not.