Welcome to Crazytown: Public Libraries Confront Digital Objects

Yesterday I saw this tweet, about a teach-yourself-Norwegian audiobook available from the Public Library Service:

PEI Library Tweet

As I do want to learn Norwegian, at least in theory, I followed the link, which led me to a page on the Prince Edward Island-branded Overdrive.com website. To “borrow” this audiobook I needed to enter my library card number, put the audiobook in my “cart” (thus starting us, forebodingly, down the road toward ecommerce language), then “checkout” (ibid), select a 7, 14 or 21 day “lending period,” download a XML wrapper file for the audiobook, download the “Overdrive Media Console” software for my Mac, and then open the XML wrapper inside the Media Console to actually download what, in the end, was simply 3 non-DRMed MP3 files.

After listening to the first 5 minutes of the first MP3 file, I decided that I didn’t really have any interest at all in learning Norwegian, so I tried to “return” the audiobook, but found no way to do so. Apparently there isn’t one, at least in the Mac version of the Media Console. So not only am I stuck with this MP3 file for the next 21 days (I’m only allowed 10 digital “loans” at a time), but, worse yet, nobody else in Prince Edward Island can learn Norwegian for the next 21 days because there are, as you can see in the screen shot from Overdrive’s website below, “Available copies: 0.” Because of me.

Learn Norwegian

As near as I have been able to determine, I may be the only person who thinks this is an absolutely crazy system for the public library-mediated circulation of digital objects.

Libraries have hundreds of years of experience in managing the circulation of physical objects, and one of the defining characteristics of physical objects is that there are only so many of them to go around. And so, for example, there only 10 copies of The Casual Vacancy in the library system and 47 people who want to read it:

Casual Vacancy

But Learn Norwegian - Level 1: Introduction to Norwegian, being simply a collection of MP3 files, isn’t shackled to this physical reality: there can be an infinite number copies of these MP3 files created so that, in theory, should the Premier decide that everyone in PEI should learn Norwegian, it would be trivial to pass a copy out to every citizen.

And yet, for some reason, we’ve opted to acquiesce to a system that takes the regular old model we’re all used to for managing and circulating physical objects and, absurdly, applies it to digital objects.  So I’ve now “checked out” the Norwegian book for the next 21 days (even though, in truth, I’ve deleted all trace of the MP3 files from my computer).

I’m not arguing against digital rights management here (I’ll argue about that elsewhere; it too is crazy, but a harder crazy to fight): it’s worth noting that the MP3 files that I am technically “borrowing” right now have no restriction on copying them. While it would likely be a contravention of the terms I agreed to at some point in the process, there’s no technical reason why I couldn’t be running off copies for every Islander right now. Indeed there’s no technical reason that, despite the Overdrive Media Console’s insistence to the contrary (“All copies of this title, including those transferred to portable devices and other media, must be deleted/destroyed upon expiration.”), I couldn’t hang on to the MP3 files for the rest of my life.

So what I have “borrowed,” then, is really just a flag in an Overdrive database that says, in essence, “don’t let anyone else in Prince Edward Island learn Norwegian for the next 21 days.”

This is crazy, and we must demand better, more rational systems from our library, if only because we’re making up systems and processes here that will be with us for generations.