Electronic Books Coming to a Library Near You!

According to a recent article in The Globe and Mail, a pilot project called The Best of B.C. Books Online will endeavour to make about 1000 non-fiction titles, both new and back catalogue, available as electronic books. This will be achieved by purchasing electronic rights to non-fiction books from B.C. publishers, and making them accessible through public and school libraries. The electronic books will then be made available for free to anyone with a British Columbia library card.

The Best of B.C. Books Online will fill the electronic access void that continues to plague the public and school libraries. Postsecondary libraries across Canada, on the other hand, have had electronic access for years. Mr. Whitney, city librarian at the Vancouver Public Library, is extremely excited about this endeavour and believes that it will enable more Canadian content to be available and generate more revenue for Canadian publishers.

The Best of B.C. Books Online is run by a consortium of the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia, the Educational Resources Acquisition Consortium, public libraries, K-12 schools and the B.C. Electronic Library Network. Dabbling in this emerging area of electronic books where set standards are few and far between, the consortium is currently attempting to go about purchasing rights from publishers and working with publishers to control content. Purchasing rights to titles will probably be done by paying publishers a cost that is equivalent to a certain number of copies at retail price, however the exact number that would be sufficient still needs to be determined. Whether these rights are purchased as a one-time purchase, or under an annual payment plan is still an issue that needs to be agreed upon by the libraries and publishers. If the music industry is any indication of the electronic book industry to come, controlling how content is used will prove to be difficult. Like music, what electronic book rights will allow have to be balanced between the needs of the users and the publishers. For example, when rights are purchased for a song via Apple’s iTunes Store, the song can only be placed onto a limited number of computers. In a similar sense, the consortium is looking to enter a type of agreement that allows the user to copy a small portion of the book. However, what would define a ‘small portion’ could range from a few pages to a chapter and is something that still needs to be agreed upon. Furthermore, the issue of whether there will be a mechanism that will control this copying is unknown. Will the user be automatically restricted from copying more than the allotted amount?

If the Best of B.C. Books Online project is successful, I cannot help but wonder how it will impact public and school libraries in the future. First of all, I have always imagined public libraries as a vibrant and comforting community space with librarians who will help with research and workshops that people can attend. Will the money that is required to purchase and maintain rights to so many literary works put a strain on the resources that are required to maintain the library as a community space? Secondly, hardcopy books are generally restricted to borrowers who live within the neighborhood of the library, simply because one would not travel several hours away to borrow books at another library in another neighborhood. With the advent of electronic books that exist on a central server, there is a significant risk that user login information will be shared with individuals who do not live in British Columbia, or perhaps even individuals who live halfway across the world. Of course, one might argue that this has not yet happened in the postsecondary libraries thus far, but the difference is that postsecondary reading material is generally much more specialized and technical. Individuals who are interested in such highly specialized material will have access through their own academic institution and those who are simply interested for knowledge-sake are few and far between. Public libraries on the other hand carry material that is much more general and readable to the public at large. As such, there is a significant chance that the remote electronic access to books may be abused by a much larger number of individuals.