OverDriveBookmobile-Blog-Pic-2That’s the question a MobileReader asks in a post about the largest supplier of e-books for U.S. public libraries.

“LovieDovie” writes in part:

“As this trend of OD providing most ebooks and audio books to the libraries grows, I see more and more OD tentacles everywhere.

“I feel like in 15 years OD will control the flow of all such digital content around most countries. In return, most public libraries around the world will become web site shells and vehicles for delivering OD content because most of them won’t need physical places anymore. Is that bad? I think it is pretty bad.

“Just think about this side effect every time you conveniently borrow your OD ebooks from your local library.

“There are other things to be scared of when it comes to OD and such corporations providing content to the libraries. For instance, your privacy is very much compromised on multiple levels. Before it was just you borrowing a book from your local lib. Now everyone involved will have big dossiers about your borrowing/reading behaviours. The other issue is the filtering. We all might end up living in bigger filter bubbles due to corporate algorithms controlling our reading/borrowing actions.”

Hello, LovieDovie? Check out the TeleRead/LibraryCity proposal for a national digital library endowment and separate public and academic digital library systems. I pleaded for billionaires to buy OverDrive for America’s public libraries. No such luck. Now a Japanese company called Rakuten, the same one that bought the Kobo e-book and hardware company, owns OverDrive, which is to “work closely” with the corporation’s other properties.

I don’t necessarily see OverDrive as an enemy. America’s public library systems could still use it and other companies as contractors, with ample privacy protections and other precautions in place (of course OverDrive might argue that it already cares, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation‘s findings are more encouraging than many would expect).

What’s more, for all its flaws, OverDrive has done some damned fine work in areas such as e-book evangelism—complete with a digital bookmobile.

Even so, I share many of LovieDovie’s fears. Do we really want OverDrive executives, who in fact rely on Amazon for a great amount of their content, to serve in effect as America’s de-facto public librarians? And what becomes of the real librarians? Will contractors replace them?

At the same time let’s remember that Steve Potash remains CEO of OverDrive, and his wife, Loree, is a librarian by background (note: I don’t know if the just-linked information about her is correct in regard to her current role in the company). They are highly aware of the nuances of the library culture. It is not Steve and his present colleagues I fear. It is their successors. The U.S. book industry has not fared particularly well under foreign ownership of many of the big players, which, more than ever, are focused on bestsellers at the expense of good books. Will public libraries end up the same way, with commercial interests prevailing over those of Jane and Joe Library Users? Some would say that to a great extent that has already happened.

Keep in mind that libraries and librarians are about a lot more than books, digital or public. We’re talking about such issues as family literacy initiatives and other outreach efforts, not to mention public libraries’ importance in American civic life. To weaken public libraries is to weaken America, especially with all the newly arrived immigrants whom libraries can help assimilate. Moreover I share ALA official Jamie LaRue‘s personal hope that libraries can play a greater role as content originators, and like Jamie, I would like libraries to be able to own e-books for real (even though I also see room for other business models). An over-reliance on OverDrive will not further such goals.

OverDrive itself could help by going on record in favor of national digital library endowment and the public and academic e-libraries at the national level. I’ll hardly count on it. But who knows? Even for OverDrive, there are no certainties. Remember, Amazon has gotten into the K-12 e-book business, and massive direct sales to public libraries could follow in time, with OverDrive bypassed. Perhaps if Rakuten wants to watch out for its shareholders, it might see the advantages of a sell to a national digital library endowment after all, before Jeff Bezos prevails.

Meanwhile, lest you think that LovieDovie is a Luddite, I’ll share a quote from a second post showing that he or she simply evinces a healthy interest in the future state of libraries:

Come back to this topic 20 years later and write what you think about the state of the local libraries then. I am saying that as long as most people think that this is the libraries should operate, like letting a corporation run the backend and the frontend of our libraries, we won’t have free and fair libraries in the future. Probably the number of physical libraries will diminish and those who can stand against the sands of time will mostly be culture centers. Again you do not need physical hospitable buildings to provide digital lending library services. For instance, Gutenberg.org and Archive.org do not have cafes or buildings to hang around.

Anyway the issue I am raising here has nothing to do with paper books whatsoever. I am talking about one corporation dominating our libraries. Paper books will be here for a while, that is not the main issue. OD providing lending library or not does not make a difference on the fate of paper books. That is just the way techology replacing another tEchnology. That should not be the part of the discussion here.

Needless to say, these are not U.S. issues alone, given OverDrive’s importance on the international library scene. My own vision is of a national digital library approach for all countries—each controlling its own collection, although able to pick up content from elsewhere.

Related: The cell phone club book idea. Anyone’s welcome to it, especially libraries and their contractors, including OverDrive.



  1. I have access to OverDrive (and Zinio) through membership of the Penrith City Library, which costs me $AU45 per annum. At this point it’s barely worth the money. It operates very slowly on a tablet, and the number of books it makes available is a tiny fraction of the number of paper books in the library. Most of these are lightweight genre fiction, which I can pick up at the local charity shop in bulk very cheaply, or find in the library itself. There are two logins necessary before I get to the search screen, and the categorisation of books is pathetically inadequate, making it extremely difficult to locate anything worth reading. Couple this with the limited length of time for which you can borrow books, which only makes it feasible to borrow two or three at a time, and I really don’t feel that I’m getting my money’s worth. (Note that I live outside Penrith, which is why I need to pay the fee; local residents — I believe — get their subscriptions for free.)

    Having said that, an OverDrive with an interface like that of the Kindle, with default login and immediate access to a huge number of well-categorised and easy-to-search books, could easily be a competitor and a threat to local libraries, particularly if it allowed per-book rental micropayments rather than an overall subscription fee. But my impression at the moment is that OverDrive has most of the disadvantages of your local library and very few of the benefits.

  2. @Writerful: It is true that librarians have a lot of leeway and even can have regional OverDrive selection committees, so technically you’re correct, and I thank you very much for pointing this out; but as Jamie LaRue will tell you, OverDrive does influence the types of books chosen.

    Small press and self-published books, at least in the past, have not gotten their fair share of the action (yes, I would emphasize the need for quality control). I myself would like to see more books from university presses and meatier titles in general. In the end you and I are probably on the same page. If nothing else, we agree on what’s happening.

    Now, in fairness to OverDrive, we need to remember that libraries are tax-supported institutions. People see them as sources of entertainment, not just information and insights, so that, in the end, the de-facto missions of public libraries differ from those of academics.

    This is one reason why, even though I want meatier titles in public library collections, we shouldn’t confuse their mission with that of academic libraries. Let’s not water down the latter. We really need separate but intertwined public and academic national digital library systems.

  3. I got a bad feeling when I saw that Overdrive seemed to be dominating the move of libraries to ebooks. Monopolies, near or total, are bad news. All you have to do is look at how Bowker is handling ISBN assignments in the U.S. to see that. Or look at the lament of those stuck with Comcast as their only broadband provider.

    I do however, disagree with this idea for a national and almost certainly government-run digital library: “My own vision is of a national digital library approach for all countries—each controlling its own collection, although able to pick up content from elsewhere.”

    “Each controlling its own collection”? Given how the Obama administration has used the IRS to go after non-profits disagreeing with its agenda, do you want it controlling what ebooks are distributed through local libraries? I think not.

    Nor do I want the world’s governments, many of them quite repressive, controlling what their people read. In the end, I’d prefer even a corporate monopoly, obsessed with profits, to a state monopoly, obsessed with maintaining an obedient population.

    And by repressive, I don’t just mean impoverished, third-world hell holes. Look at how effectively German officials managed to put a lid on media coverage of the gropings and rapes in Cologne for about a week. If I recall correctly, the story only leaked out through a renegade news source in the UK. Look at similar behavior in the collusion in Sweden between the government and its press. That has gone on for years.

    Most government authorities see as their prime directive maintaining their hold on power no matter how badly they fail in their duties. There’s no way I’d give them power to decide what digital books are or are not in some national library. I’m even dubious about having such a system existing, since it is hard for private groups to compete with a tax-funded entity.

  4. @Michael: Both the public and academic systems would be decentralized, with participation from librarians in a number of locations. Furthermore state and local libraries could still buy or originate their own content. William F. Buckley Jr., my political opposite, wanted a national digital library system and talked up the idea in two columns. You mean to say you’re to the right of him on this issue?

    As for corporate power, remember that the lines between it and the government kind can be pretty thin. Amazon is a major contractor for the Feds. Unlike DC, of course, Jeff Bezos is not at least theoretically accountable to taxpayers and voters. We can’t even get him to do TTS in E Ink Kindles.

    Like you, I distrust D.C., just as WFB himself did on civil liberties matters; but I’m also appalled that our public libraries can spend just $4 per capita on books. Whether D.C. would live up to your fears is a theoretical question. The shortage of library books and librarians—especially for a nation where minorities will be the majority in time—is unfortunately real. School libraries have suffered especially even though a strong connection exists between academic achievement and school library resources. Merely to read isn’t enough. We want kids to learn to be critical thinkers and demon researchers, and that’s what the best school librarians can teach them.


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