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Mountain of Digital Content

June 6, 2011

On days like this, with hazy white light, Mt. Ouray looks far away. Under crystalline blue skies such as we often see, it looms much closer. Which is true? On either day, you can get there quickly, although you might not want to walk there from home.

Life with digital “books” has been much that way over the last decade—for libraries, publishers, and readers.

Seven years ago, we first started offering downloadable audiobooks for checkout, and the initial enthusiasm quickly waned among readers in the face of technical difficulty. Things are hardly improved over these seven years. But they could be. That’s the carrot.

The technical issues all revolve around controlling rights to the material. Digital “material” can be cloned at no cost indefinitely. Owners of that material rarely intended to work long hours for free, but that’s the net effect if they can’t control the number of copies.

Libraries, Netflix, the used book market, all rely on a long-standing traditional copyright called the Right of First Sale. You buy something, you own it. You may lend it or resell it. However, you may not make a copy of it and sell that copy without permission.

The economics of printing provided built-in security against someone doing that with a book, even with modern copy machines (although it’s been a bigger issue in academia as students and professors sought to escape the usurious textbook market).

The economics of the digital world make illegal copying a primary concern to writers, publishers, artists, musicians, anyone with a saleable digital thing. The issue is far from settled, but we’re getting there.

I mean “we” as a society. The evolution from traditional notions of copyright will require a shift in everyone involved—producers, publishers, readers, consumers—and may well take us around several corners right back to where we were.

Libraries don’t have many options yet for lending e-books, which you can read on your various devices such as Kindle or iPad or Droid. One company offers a service to libraries, but we end up leasing books instead of owning them.

We do that with other content, but it’s grown tiresome. There are issues. Libraries around the world have been rubbing their chins about this and have been testing some systems for change.

One is Douglas County Libraries in Colorado, which is building a system much like the commercial one for lending e-books. Digital rights have been evolving away from the traditional right of first sale, and libraries can reaffirm that right by proving we can control access to digital copies and do business as usual.

Digital content is on my mind as we look at remodeling the library and think about where our growth might come from. Our circulation rose 5.7% the first quarter this year, mostly in DVDs but also in children’s fiction and in magazine circulation.

Our library business has changed since we opened the remodeled building in 1998. Even then, there were people who said we didn’t need a new building because everything would be on the Internet. Our reference room is certainly gone.

The library is three times busier in every way since that time (without population growth) and e-books are only just now beginning to “boom.” The “boom” accounts for just a small fraction of books sold, yet as has been the case for years, it seems we’re at a threshold—but of what we can’t quite say.

The view is a little hazy, but the mountain of digital content is definitely there.

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