StevePCroppedHate e-books? If you’re an academic, it’s easy to back up your biases. You just inflict PDF on subjects in P vs. E experiments. PDF  generally offers less control than ePub over such trivial details as font size, at least if you want lines to break in the right places. I hate PDF for, say, recreational reading on mobile devices. PDF can be scary enough for academic reading on desktops.

But PDF to ePub conversions is tricky. How to get all the details right, especially for phones and small-screened tablets?

To our rescue, let’s hope, comes OverDrive, the largest supplier of e-books to schools and libraries. Steve Potash, the CEO, told Library Journal: “We want to unlock all of the old PDF [files]…. PDF books, PDF textbooks, PDF handbooks, travel guides—books that we’ve collected, millions of them—that were never optimized for mobile use.”

“If we could translate these at little or no cost, and all of the sudden make them fully distributable, optimized just like the beautiful [fixed layout EPUB 3] titles you get from our key suppliers, I think this is going to be huge,” Potash said.

I agree, Steve! This is exactly the kind of practical, down-to-earth priority that helps distinguish public library thinking from so much of the academic variety. Most academics care far more about information per se than about its presentation. OverDrive’s PDF project would have been a natural for the Digital Public Library of America to help justify the P in its name. Truly we need two separate but intertwined national digital library systems, so that the academics don’t pull rank and elbow aside people with genuine public library priorities.

In other news, Library Journal reports in the same article that “OverDrive will soon be moving to a cloud-based collection hosting model that will speed up browsing and downloading for most library patrons. Sensitive information, such as user data, will remain stored on OverDrive’s secure data center in Ohio." Better OverDrive than Amazon or Adobe—for which libraries right now are just a speck of their business! No guarantees, but my hunch is that OverDrive will be more likely to respect librarians’ passion for patron privacy. While I don’t think OverDrive should continue to serve in effect as our national digital librarian for public libraries, the company could have much to offer as a contractor for national digital library systems.


  1. David, can you expound on your reasoning not to want Overdrive for public libraries? My library still has it, thank God, but several friends have had their libraries switch to one of the others, which throws the book reading onto a tablet. Many of us are sensitive to long-form reading on a backlit device, so being able to read library books on e-ink has been a blessing.

  2. @Mary: OverDrive has many terrific people, and I’m 100 percent in favor of using OverDrive as a contractor for the two national digital library systems I’ve proposed. It’s just a question of the grand vision. I want librarians to enjoy more direct control of content and of the systems, so that, for example, we can benefit from truly reliable links between books. That requires long-term thinking and a genuine library model. Coordinate things well enough, offer enough stability, and the publishers will wake up to the possibilities here (yes, in this case, I’m thinking of nonfiction a lot more than fiction).

    As for the issue of tablets vs. E Ink, that is apart from the question of business models. I myself would be very grouchy if tablets were the only way to read e-books at my local library. I applaud OverDrive’s efforts to turn PDF accurately into ePub, which of course would be readable on many E Ink machines—and would be much easier to use than PDF on the same hardware. As a contractor, OverDrive could provide conversion services and plenty of others (along with other companies).


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