/ 18 March 2011

Durability not a bug for ebooks

When I was a high-school student in Toronto, I loved working in libraries.

I spent a glorious summer inputting the ISBN of every book in a junior high-school library for a new automated catalogue (if that doesn’t sound glorious, think of this: I had to get down and handle every single book in a mid-sized library, which was an education in and of itself). I worked at a high-school library for a time.

Then I graduated to the big leagues: working in the business and urban affairs section of the North York Central Library, a huge, multistorey library with dozens of collections and hundreds of librarians, public service clerks and pages — that was my job, page, and it meant doing all the drudgework from reshelving books to repairing the newspapers.

Yes, repairing the newspapers. We were the business collection and that meant that people came in to find out what had been in any of the nation’s daily papers (as well as a few international papers) in the past month.

After 30 days we’d get microfilm editions of the papers, which were kind of a pain to read, but they were at least designed from the ground up to be used by the public over a period of years.

Designed to self-destruct

You can’t say the same thing about the print edition of a newspaper.

Newspapers are practically designed to self-destruct after a single reading — if you’ve ever picked up a daily paper in a café around suppertime after it’s been handled by a day’s worth of patrons, you know that this is a ‘personal” technology and that, after a pass-along or two, it starts to look like it’s been to the wars.

Try to imagine what a newspaper looks like after it’s been read by a busy library’s patrons over the course of 30 days. By month’s end, the papers were more sellotape than newsprint, big photocopied sections glued in to replace torn-out or illegible pieces and so on. Whatever the demerits of microfilm as a storage medium (and it is notoriously bulky, difficult stuff), at least it had a ­certain durability that the print article lacked.

Medium to medium
Now, we did pay a stiff premium for those film editions, but nothing in our deal with the newspaper publishers required us to gently and deliberately age them so that they would fall to bits over 30 days’ use. No one tried to argue that the fact that newspapers disintegrated if you looked at them cross-eyed was a feature that had to be preserved as their content moved from medium to medium.

And yet that is just the case made in the ebook deal HarperCollins is offering libraries. HarperCollins has informed libraries that, henceforth, ebooks will be sold on the condition that they can be circulated only 26 times before they self-destruct. HarperCollins argues that this reflects the usage characteristics of the print editions that HarperCollins has sold to libraries for literally centuries. That is, HarperCollins argues that once one of its print books lands on the shelves of a local library, it will survive for only 26 checkouts before it has to be discarded because it is in such an unreadable state.

Now, in point of fact, many ordinary trade books circulate far more than 26 times before they’re ready for the discard pile. If a group of untrained school kids working as part-time pages can keep a copy of the Toronto Star in readable shape for 30 days’ worth of several-times-a-day usage, then it’s certainly the case that the skilled gluepot ninjas working behind the counter at your local library can easily keep a book patched up and running around the course for a lot more than 26 circuits. Indeed, the HarperCollins editions of my own books are superb and robust examples of the bookbinder’s art (take note!) and, judging from the comments of outraged librarians, it’s common for HarperCollins’s printed volumes to stay in circulation for a very long time indeed.

Simulate the damage

But this is the wrong thing to argue about. Whether a HarperCollins book has the circulatory vigour to cope with 26 checkouts or 200, it’s bizarre to argue that this finite durability is a feature that we should carefully import into new media. It would be like assuming the contractual obligation to attack the microfilm with nail scissors every time someone looked up an old article, to simulate the damage that might have been done by our careless patrons to the newsprint that had once borne it.

Ebooks have loads of demerits, especially as they are marketed to libraries. They are sold at full price, whereas print editions generally go at a hefty discount to reflect libraries’ volume purchasing. They can be read with only certain proprietary readers, something analogous to insisting that the libraries require patrons to read their books by the light of one preferred manufacturer’s lightbulb. They can’t be sold on as a library discard once the library no longer needs them for the collection.

But they have virtues, too. For example, they don’t wear out. To pretend that this belongs on the ‘con” side rather than the ‘pro” side of the ebook chart is indefensible. You might as well argue that a surcharge should be assessed against paperbacks to offset the ‘losses” experienced by publishers when libraries buy them instead of the hardcover, or that charity shops should be obliged to apply fake rust to stainless steel cutlery to make up for the fact that it lasts longer than the non-stainless kind.

Of course ebooks don’t wear out. Programming them to self-destruct after 26 checkouts is tantamount to asking librarians to embrace entropy. Anyone who thinks that this is going to happen has never spent any time with a librarian. —