The Uncertain Future of American Libraries

Sun, 29 Mar 2020 16:19:05 GMT

Brick and mortar libraries provide a lot of value beyond serving as a home for books. They host programs, enable internet access, and connect patrons with an array of essential services. But I want to talk about books for a moment, because the future of this fundamental service is at risk.

There are some things worth knowing about libraries:

1. ~1793, the American public lending library concept was innovated by Benjamin Franklin in 1973 via the Library Company of Philadelphia.

2. Libraries work because of this policy 17 U.S.C. § 109(a) called the "First Sale Doctrine" (right of first sale) which, "gives the owners of copyrighted works the rights to sell, lend, or share their copies without having to obtain permission or pay fees". Libraries buy books or receive donations and then lend these books to patrons.

3. ~1900 Andrew Carnegie helped fund 2,500 libraries according to brilliant "Carnegie formula" which (as prerequisite funding) required the local government to commit to drawing public funding + paying staff for maintenance, operating as non-profit, and providing the building site.

4. Today there are > 115,000 libraries in the United States. Many libraries have limited, premier floor space where patrons can check out books, and out of circulation "stacks" where less used material may be moved "out of circulation".

5. Most American public libraries have limited funds and opportunities for increasing their funds (beyond receiving funding via taxes), and have access to very few engineering resources.

6. Since ~2000, libraries have faced increasing pressure to offer their books online to remain relevant within the digital age. Except, due to point [5], most libraries have no engineering staff. They have neither the leverage nor the resources to create and manage an online lending system. And they are terrified about the idea of doing getting sued, because that means they lose their jobs and their ability to serve the public. This makes Libraries helpless and vulnerable.

7. OverDrive (& Libby) -- run by the Japanese for-profit, Rakuten -- exploits this vulnerability and fills this digital divide for libraries by negotiating ebook access through publishers. Titles are made digitally available to libraries at a significant markup (e.g. ~5x). If this weren't bad enough for libraries, OverDrive pushes libraries in the direction of forgoing their first sale doctrine (the thing which allows them to buy and lend out their own books)[2] and instead offers a watered down lease model where the library has to pay over and over again to lease and lend books. So the libraries (which we fund as tax payers) spend 5x the Amazon cost of a book, and we only get a ~2 year lease before we have to renew our purchase. What is the alternative for libraries? Not having the digital books patrons want?

8. In 2007 the Internet Archive received official Special Library (Rush Brandis, California State Library) accreditation by the State of California. In 2011, being one of the few non-profit archives and libraries with an engineering staff, the Internet Archive piloted its own online Controlled Digital Lending ( program on, backed by its physical book collections.

9. As of 2013, 90% of America Libraries rely on OverDrive to provide a digital offering.

10. The year is 2020. Fast forward 15 years. What happens in 2035 when US libraries which have been spending tax payer money on leasing, no longer own the books they purchase? And what happens if one of these ebook providers stops doing business or increases their rates?

11. Over the past 10 years, a handful of pro-library movers and shakers (like Hadrien Gardeur & Leonard Richardson) have pioneered open standards (e.g. OPDS, Readium) to enable libraries and other members of the non-profit and for-profit book ecosystem, to streamline the process of syndicating, distributing, and accessing book (and related) content. Raj Kumar, Brenton Cheng and also Richard CaceresCharles Horn, and I have been hard at working within the Internet Archive integrating and maintaining implementations of these standards. On top of these foundations, confederations have emerged to share resources to create projects like Library Simplified ( ~2015) and FOLIO to enable libraries to retake control by running their own online catalog and lending infrastructure.

12. If US libraries are to survive, it will take more than librarians. It will take we the people stepping up to bring our skills to non-profits. It will take organizers helping facilitate new types of collaboration between librarians and mission-aligned non-profits. It will require respectful and responsible "unionizing" of libraries at the library level.

At the Internet Archive, Chris Freeland runs the Open Libraries Partners initiative ( which brainstorms how libraries can share data, resources, and work together to build a system that works better for everyone.

Want to learn more? What to help support the American Library System and see how you can help?

Contact me and:

* We can include you in one of Chris's upcoming webinars.

* We have a slack channel with scores of open-source contributors of all sorts of backgrounds (library science, marketing, design, engineering, research) and we'd love to talk about your ideas.
All thoughts are my own.

Tags: Leonard Richardson, Amazon, FOLIO, Library Simplified, policy 17 U.S.C. § 109(a), Brenton Cheng, Charles Horn, American Library System, Open Libraries, Andrew Carnegie, Special Library, California State Library, Internet Archive, 2011, First Sale Doctrine, 2007, Carnegie formula, United States, Readium, California, OverDrive, Benjamin Franklin, Hadrien Gardeur, Raj Kumar, Controlled Digital Lending, 1793, Richard Caceres, Chris Freeland, Japanese, Rakuten, OPDS, Libby