Friday, May 4, 2012

Libraries and Lending Ebooks

I have written on this subject before, lending ebooks from libraries.
Now there is a small movement to try and encourage publishers and libraries to work together to find a common solution. I’ve been able to give it a bit more thought, and what follows is how I think it should work.
My town’s library and the regional system it is connected to does have an ebook lending system. But the functionality of it is awful. The interface for getting an ebook to borrow is not intuitive at all, and then once the file has finally been extruded from the system, I have to run it through a third-party application to process the file and stick it onto my Nook. 
This could be done so much more easily, though it requires cooperation from all parties involved: the libraries, publishers, and ebook reader manufacturers.
On the surface, I should be able to walk into my library and plug my ebook reader into a kiosk via my ebook reader’s USB cord. Alternatively, I could also use a USB thumb drive.
With my Nook (or iPad or Kindle, etc.) plugged in, I scan my library card and begin to peruse the list of available books for borrowing. Once I find a title I’m interested in reading, I select it, and it gets pushed onto my Nook and is available for reading.
After, say, three weeks, when the expiration date is reached, my Nook will automatically delete the ebook. If I wasn’t finished reading it for whatever reason, then it behooves me to go to the library and borrow it again.
…Or get on the waiting list if it was a popular title.
The way to make this work is to use Digital Rights Management (DRM) in a constructive way.
It starts with my library card.
My library card has an ID number on it for my library system. That number could be used as part of a public/private key encryption for the DRM.
When I log into the library kiosk using my library card and make my title selection, the process begins.
The kiosk first unzips the ePub file of the ebook I want to read. It inserts a small XML file containing the expiration date into the unzipped data and then re-zips the files along with the XML file into the ePub file again.
Or, more simply, the kiosk takes the ebook and the expiration date file and put together into a directory, zipping up the directory into the archive file. This gets around having to adopt the ePub format.
In the second step, the kiosk software then encrypts the ePub file using my library card number as the key. At this point, I would suggest changing the filetype to an eLibrary-book file, designated with the file suffix .elib or something else appropriate.
When my ebook reader sees the file is an eLib file, it knows it needs something to decrypt it. That something is my library number. My reader asks me to input my library card number and that unlocks the ebook for use in my reader. (An iPad could just scan the barcode with its camera.)
Knowing it is an eLib file, the reader also knows there is an expiration date.
When the expiration date comes due, my reader would hopefully give me timely notification that it is about to expire and I should finish reading the book already. When the date is passed, the reader simply deletes the file. If I try to copy the file again from a thumb drive I might have used, it just won’t work because the expiration date is passed.
This also avoids someone unscrupulously putting a borrowed book available online. The encryption of the book would be tied to that person’s library card, making it trivial to identifying the malfeasant responsible.
Also, public-private key encryption is strong enough to work as a deterrent. Sure, someone with enough computing power at his fingertips could crack a public-private key pair. However, it still takes considerable computing capacity and time to do so. Enough, that it makes it economically useless to do it. Why expend several thousand dollars on computer equipment and a few weeks running it while driving up electricity bills, when you could just go out and buy the book for a couple dollars in the first place?
My idea does require that ebook reader manufacturers add the ability to recognize and decrypt eLib files. That means they all have to agree to accepting it as a standard and adding the software into the operating systems of their devices.
On the library side of things, they would be limited to lending only the number of copies they purchased of a given title. So, if a library only purchased three copies of Nobody, then they would only be allowed to loan three copies of Nobody. If all three copies were out, then patrons would have to wait until the first expiration date was reached.
Simple and elegant!
Someone with decent coding skills could probably hack out a functional version of the above in a few hours. I, on the other hand, could probably hack out a pseudo-functional demo in a month or two. Just a simple matter of programming…
Sure, people could use the above through the web as well. As I see it, the kiosk-based system could continue to encourage people to visit the local library and help keep libraries relevant and viable in the digital age.
Easily borrowing ebooks from a library would also be a huge boost for the ebook market. The key market that most publishers shoot for are those top end readers who buy many books over the year, and are apt to read their favorite books over and over again. Many of these people got their start in their love of reading as children. The vast majority of children do not go out to buy books for themselves, they go to the library to borrow them. It isn’t until they are teens and young adults that these readers begin buying books and building their personal libraries. I should know, I’m one of them!
Hey! and Barnes & Noble! Wanna get long-term customers who buy many titles on a regular basis? Do what the tobacco companies do: target children as early as possible!
And the best way to hook children on reading books in an ebook reader is to make it as easy as possible for these children to borrow the books from the library! That’s where your top readers come from!
When you’re riding a motorcycle, you don’t look at the asphalt just in front of your front tire, you look at far ahead as you can—even looking trough the trees to see if any hazard might be ahead. The further you look ahead, the more time you have to plan and adjust. Business people need to stop looking at the asphalt in front of their toes and start looking up and out to the horizon and start working on long term planning and long term profit. By making it easier for people to borrow ebooks from libraries, you guarantee future sales and profits by encourage people to read!


  1. Textbooks could be available for rental in a similar fashion with the option to purchase available before the file expiration date!

    1. Actually, I'd rather things NOT go in that direction as that is just where the business-types would like to drag things. They would very much like it if people could only rent books, and if they wanted to read it again, they would have to pay again. That's where greed comes into the picture. When the business people stare so much at the bottom line of their spreadsheets that they forget about product and customer. Anyone who doubts this, just look at the digital music market: the only place where the RIAA members were enthusiastic was where people had to pay a subscription to listen to music. No money? No music. When RIAA resurrected Napster, they tried to make it a rent-a-song service. It failed miserably, because people feel they should be able to own what they pay for.

      Already, the online distributors offer a "Try Before You Buy" feature, where you can download the first few chapters of a book to read for free. I've been in support of this for many years, based on the format publishers liked to receive book manuscript submissions: the first three chapters and the outline of the rest. Let's face it, if you don't have the reader by the third chapter, your book is probably not going to sell very well. With the option to try out a book first, I see no reason why people should just rent it.