Marred by Shelving

By Tom Peters |

The battle for the right to lend ebooks has begun.  It is being fought in board rooms, in backrooms, and in bedrooms.  It is being fought at sales counters and at circulation counters, by web counters and by bean counters.  It is being fought on land, at sea, in the air, on the net, and in outer space.  It is being fought on both sides of the Atlantic.  Sinister u-boats have been spotted lurking off the Jersey coast, waiting to sink errant ebooks.

If I had it in me, this is the point where I would launch into some rousing rhetoric in the proud tradition of Henry V at Agincourt, of Teddy Roosevelt at the foot of San Juan Hill, of FDR, and of Churchill.  To the ramparts, readers!  We must save the lending library!

Alas, I don’t have it in me, so let’s just look at some recent developments.

  • On October 21, Stephen Page, the CEO of Faber and Faber, announced that the Publishers Association in the UK had agreed to some basic guidelines for the lending of ebooks by libraries.  One guideline suggests that patrons must travel to a physical library location to check out and download a library-supplied ebook.  This proposed restriction raised considerable ire in libraryland, the blogosphere, and the twitterverse.   
  • David Rapp’s Oct. 22 article ( is good battlefield reporting.  Years hence, this announcement in Leeds may be remembered as akin to the attack on Fort Sumter, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and the attack on Pearl Harbor, in this war for the survival of the lending library. 
  • On October 22 Amazon announced that a lending feature would be coming to the Kindle later this year.  Here’s the direct quote from the Amazon’s mouth, “Second, later this year, we will be introducing lending for Kindle, a new feature that lets you loan your Kindle books to other Kindle device or Kindle app users. Each book can be lent once for a loan period of 14-days and the lender cannot read the book during the loan period. Additionally, not all e-books will be lendable - this is solely up to the publisher or rights holder, who determines which titles are enabled for lending.” (  
  • Big deal, you may think.  Nook has had this function in a similarly constrained way for awhile, and the Sony Readers and other “contendas” in the portable ereader arena play well with others, too.  Several colleagues have pointed out that such “lend-to-a-friend” functions have little or nothing to do with the library lending model.  I respectfully disagree.  I’m not an historian of lending libraries, but it seems to me that the social and legal precedence for and acceptance of lending libraries grew out of previous experiments in, acceptance of, and the perceived value of lending out of private libraries, subscription libraries, and other precursors to the lending library.  Perhaps at the dawn of the digital era we are watching a foreshortened reiteration of an evolutionary process that played out centuries ago with printed books, culminating in the lending libraries that we all know and most of us love.  The first step to a digital lending library begins with someone willing and able to loan an etext to another. 
  • Throughout October and November a rousing debate has arisen about the oft-envisioned need for, possibility of, and basic characteristics of a National Digital Library for the U.S., which would provide much greater access to our national multicultural heritage than any Kindlesque or iPadish business plan ever could hope to achieve.  On October 1st there was a meeting at Harvard University of 40 or so directors of research libraries, charitable foundations, and other cultural institutions to discuss this idea.  Robert Darnton from Harvard gave the opening keynote address, which was subsequently published in the New York Review of Books (   
  • Paul Courant’s blog post of Oct. 12 about the Harvard meeting ( points out that the vexing question of how to enable “…the unfettered circulation of in-copyright digital material…is the sine qua non of any digital library – local, national, or universal – that aims to make the entirety of its content readily available to all comers.” 
  • On Nov. 5th David Rothman’s competing vision of a National Digital Library System was published as an essay in The Atlantic (   On November 17th David will be live online via OPAL ( to discuss his ideas and the latest developments.   Everyone is welcome to attend and participate. 

After all the brandishing of bare bodkins subsides, after all the ignorant armies clash by night, a black-flagged unfamiliar ship will loom into our ken out of the smoke and mist, reminding us of what we already know, but sometimes wish we could forget.  Digital books aren’t like printed books.  Perhaps the lending model (not to mention the distribution and economic models) that worked so well when texts were embedded in static text-bearing devices (paper, microfilm, cassettes, DVDs, Playaways, etc.) won’t work as well now that  etexts have been liberated from a single device and are free to flit.  We need a radical new way to circulate etexts to the people, yearning to be free and democratic.  Knowledge and expertise want to be rusticated.  As Robert Darnton suggests, the golden age of the Republic of Letters is dawning.   The Jeffersonian ideal will be realized -- without the agrarian bits, perhaps. 

Back in front of my screen, as I watched Buffy Hamilton’s YouTube video (  of how they are setting up and preparing to lend Kindles at her library, I was relishing this wonderfully unique moment in the history of librarianship.  For the first time ever (as far as I can tell), librarians face the real, conscious choice whether or not to keep their libraries in the device business.  Until now, in order to provide access to and lend content, libraries also had to deal with the text-bearing devices.  To be able to offer the experience of reading, we had to lend out printed books and other media.    

Just as hockey has been described as a good fight marred by skating, perhaps for all these centuries lending libraries have been good information services marred by shelving – by the need to process, handle, label, shelve, re-handle, and preserve all those pulpy, plastic, scratchable, breakable, eminently decayable text-bearing devices.  If libraries got out of the device business, we could concentrate on content and services. 

We may not be able to get completely out of the device business, because of digital divide issues.  No matter how inexpensive portable ereading devices become, they always may be too expensive for some fellow citizens.  But shelving and lending text-bearing devices could become a relatively minor library service.  The rapid adoption and diffusion of cell phones is encouraging here.  Most people in the world now carry and use a mobile phone, regardless of income level. 

Make no mistake, however:  the battle is on.  The fate of the lending library in the digital era hangs in the balance.  Rise up, librarians!  You have nothing to lose but your shelving!