Online Public Library
The Internet And The Library
By Sam Vaknin
"In this digital age, the custodians of published works are at the center of a global copyright controversy that casts them as villains simply for doing their job: letting people borrow books for free."
(ZDNet quoted by "Publisher's Lunch on July 13, 2001)
It is amazing that the traditional archivists of human knowledge - the libraries - failed so spectacularly to ride the tiger of the Internet, that epitome and apex of knowledge creation and distribution. At first, libraries, the inertial repositories of printed matter, were overwhelmed by the rapid pace of technology and by the ephemeral and anarchic content it spawned. They were reduced to providing access to dull card catalogues and unimaginative collections of web links. The more daring added online exhibits and digitized collections. A typical library web site is still comprised of static representations of the library's physical assets and a few quasi-interactive services.
This tendency - by both publishers and libraries - to inadequately and inappropriately pour old wine into new vessels is what caused the recent furor over e-books.
The lending of e-books to patrons appears to be a natural extension of the classical role of libraries: physical book lending. Libraries sought also to extend their archival functions to e-books. But librarians failed to grasp the essential and substantive differences between the two formats. E-books can be easily, stealthily, and cheaply copied, for instance. The source of the e-book - scanned printed titles, or converted digital files - is immaterial and irrelevant. The minute a title becomes an e-book, copyright violations are a real and present danger. Moreover, e-books are not a tangible product. "Lending" an e-book - is tantamount to copying an e-book. In other words, e-books are not books at all. They are software products. Libraries have pioneered digital collections (as they have other information technologies throughout history) and are still the main promoters of e-publishing. But now they are at risk of becoming piracy portals.