information wants to be expensive

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other

Stewart Brand, 1984

This week, unveiled Singles: short pieces by well-known writers that are — you guessed it — available exclusively for Kindle.

The New York Times, not wanting to be left out of this small exclusive market, just released its own short ebook, currently available through the Kindle store and Barnes & Noble but “coming soon to the iBookstore and Google eBookstore.”

At the moment, none of these ebooks are very expensive: they range in price from $0.99 to $5.99. But looked at another way, these titles are all very expensive, especially if you are a library.

Let’s say you have a patron who wants to read one of those $0.99 Kindle Singles. Since it’s a Kindle exclusive, it’s not going to be available through Overdrive or NetLibrary, the two main vendors of ebooks to public libraries. If you’re a library that loans Kindles (and there are some, although as far as I can tell it’s still a dubious practice according to Amazon’s Terms of Service), you could of course buy a copy for one of your circulating Kindles. In theory, although this might also be dubious, you could buy a copy and have it on a computer dedicated as an in-library Kindle book reader, or, I suppose, as a loanable laptop Kindle book reader. Of course, those options require that you have a Kindle or a laptop to loan, or a computer to set aside. All of those things are considerably more expensive than the $0.99 ebook.

Get over it, Crossett, I hear some of you saying. It’s $0.99 cents. People can afford to pay that themselves for something they want to read. Well, sure. If they can afford the device or computer to read it on, they probably can afford the $0.99. But libraries — public libraries in particular — are about providing access to everyone, not just to those who can afford it.

Basically, I look at these ebooks and I think, The newspaper of record has published a book on a hot topic that I cannot provide to library patrons. This sucks.

Libraries not just about access: they are also about preservation. Digital preservation is doable. There are libraries and librarians working hard to do it right now. But we can’t preserve something we can’t access and — I’m speaking beyond my technical expertise here, but I’m going to go out on a limb — my guess is that the digital rights/restrictions management software installed on these ebooks would make it damn hard for the digital preservationists to do their thing without, like, breaking the law. Not good. It makes one think that the real censors will turn out not to be the government book burners of Fahrenheit 451 but the corporations that make a profit by restricting access.

Of course, none of this really matters to the ebook makers and publishers and sellers. They are, like the big information vendors, playing a different game. It’s fine with them if library econtent is a wasteland.

I deal on a daily basis with patrons whose lives are made more difficult by technology — who have to accomplish all the things that modern life requires us to accomplish online in hour long sessions on public library computers. If I’d had to work like a patron today, I wouldn’t have gotten much of anything done. The rise of emedia means that not only is information inconvenient for our patrons to gather — it’s downright impossible. Can I interlibrary loan an ereader from some library that loans them? ‘Cause I’d like to read that book about Wikileaks. Thanks.

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