I was pleasantly surprised to see this poster at my local train station. Looks like Surrey Library is moving to the digital age.
"Bet the site doesn't work on my phone," I thought.
I was wrong!
Overall, this is a brilliant new service. A great initiative to get people reading more books and improving library services. Take a look at http://ebooks.surreycc.gov.uk
There's just one problem...
Digital Restrictions Management - as the name implies - prevents you from performing certain actions with a file. As it happens, I don't disagree with the notion that a rented work should have restrictions on its use. These books are given to me for free - I don't own them. DRM serves to enforce the tacit social construct that - if I borrow a book from you - I'm expected not to lend it on and return it after a reasonable period. That's fine with me.
What I do disagree with is artificial scarcity. In the "real" world, if you only have 3 copies of a book, you can only lend out 3 copies. In the digital world, if you have one item, you can copy it an infinite number of times. Pick a file, hit CTRL+C then CTRL+V - instant copy. And you can do it as many times as you like.
In a physical library, only one person can borrow a book at a time. In a digital library, it makes no sense to say there is only one copy.
The title can be lent out to as many people who want it.
Some books are - bizarrely - more available than others. Why can some books have 7 copies and others only 1?
Which leads us in to the incredible situation of being on a waiting list for a digital file!
This artificial scarcity also has an impact on the number of books you can borrow. If I'm going on a two week holiday, why shouldn't I be allowed to borrow as many books as I like? Taking those books from a physical library would stop other patrons enjoying the works - in a digital library anyone can borrow any work simultaneously.
Finally, we have the issue of copying. One of the reasons I use libraries is for research. In fairness, the DRM does allow for limited copying. But different books have different allowances despite - presumably - being covered by the same copyright regime.
This is madness. Why take something as amazing as the digital revolution and try to drag it down to the mundane level of the analogue world? It's like inventing the motorcar and insisting that drivers carry a bale of hay, replacement horseshoes and travel no faster that 50mph.
The side effect of this wasteful DRM is a lack compatibility with popular products.
The MP3 and WMA audiobooks require the OverDrive Media Console. ODMC is compatible with PC and Mac - but not Linux. It works on Android, BlackBerry, iPhone and Windows mobile - but not the billions of Symbian or J2ME handsets out there.
The DRM on the eBooks requires Adobe's proprietary Digital Editions software. It's not available on Linux and - judging by the comments on my blog - it doesn't work very well on Windows or Mac. It's also restricted to a few ebook readers - excluding Amazon's Kindle.
So, due to DRM, we're left with a library service which...
- Artificially restricts how many books are available.
- Forces people to buy a particular brand of eBook reader or mobile phone.
- Requires the use of Windows or Mac.
- Prevents the early return of some media (you can't "return" some books early. Why?)
- Stops the quoting of passages for future use.
Overall - what Surrey Libraries have done is take an amazing service and cripple it. The potential is there - they just need their mindset moved to the 21st century.