The Napster library

Does the San Francisco Public Library's plan to lend out e-books portend the death of the publishing industry?

Published July 5, 2000 7:13PM (EDT)

"San Francisco's public library is engaging in a six-month experiment with a subscription that allows readers to browse, search, borrow, read and return 1,500 electronic books from their home or office." -- San Francisco Chronicle, 6/26/00

It was an innocuous little notice, hidden on a back page of the San Francisco Chronicle. The city's public library has started letting its members "check out" e-books, via download from the library's Web site. "No more overdue fines!" crowed the article.

A novel experiment -- no pun intended -- and one that will probably go unnoticed by a vast number of Net users. But this simple little notice may have blasted a big, fat hole in the business model of the electronic book companies that plan to sell digital versions of bestsellers for download over the Web. If you can "borrow" an e-book for free, why would you ever bother to buy one?

Unlike your local public library, an online library of e-books doesn't require you to schlep downtown and stand in line, only to discover that the library's only copy of "Chicken Soup for the Soul" is checked out (and three months overdue). There's no scarcity, no physical location and, best of all, still no cost. And it's just as easy to go to your library's Web site and "check out" an e-book as it is to go to and buy the exact same e-book.

OK, so maybe it's not that easy yet. As I quickly discovered, checking out an electronic book from the San Francisco Public Library is still a rather arduous process. First off, the library -- which is technologically enabled by the start-up NetLibrary -- is only offering access to certain texts. If you want to check out, say, a book by George Eliot, William Shakespeare, Nathaniel Hawthorne or some other long-dead author that you were forced to study in seventh grade, you're in luck. Same goes if you're a connoisseur of academic texts like "Anglo-American Feminist Challenges to the Rhetorical Traditions" or self-help books like "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Microsoft Office 97." If you hope to find that new Dave Eggers bestseller, don't waste your time. Most of the books offered through NetLibrary are from the public domain archives of Project Gutenberg or academic publishers; no big publishers are participating yet.

It's also no easy task to download the e-book. First, you'll have to dig deep into the San Francisco Library's Web site before you'll find the NetLibrary offerings (hint: click "electronic resources" and then "reference databases." Then, you'll have to input your library card number (which, of course, you can only get by visiting the physical library in San Francisco) before muddling through the tediously slow Web site to find a book. Before you can download the book, you'll have to also become a NetLibrary member, get a password and download NetLibrary's proprietary "reader." Then, and only then, will you be able to download your e-book.

It doesn't get any easier from there. You'll still have to read the text either on the Web or on your hard drive and the book will automatically "return" itself (i.e.: disappear from your hard drive) after exactly three days; hardly enough time to read the entirety of "Don Quixote," or even the Cliffs Notes of "Don Quixote" (both of which, incidentally, are available). You can't print your e-book out, and you can't send a copy to a friend.

So Rocket eBook, SoftBook, and other e-book e-tailers are probably not yet quaking in fear at the prospect of free electronic public libraries. Perhaps they never will. The big publishing houses could choose not to make electronic versions of their new books available to libraries. And even if they do acquire a better collection, public libraries are not well known for swiftly adapting friendly user interfaces. Buying may always be less of a hassle than borrowing.

But imagine if your public library eventually became a kind of Napster for the literary set -- offering free, downloadable versions of all the hottest book releases, which you could trade with your friends, and carry around on your PDA. It's a readers dream: "I'll give you Zadie Smith if you share your Stephen King collection with me ..."

Well, one can always dream.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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