life in a glass house (the ebooks part) #bclc2014

life in a glass house (papering the window panes)

This is the text for my half of a session at the 2014 BC Library Conference. The first half belonged to Myron Groover and can be found here.

Before I get started I have to make clear that though I work in a public library and a lot of what I’m saying today is informed by my time directly serving the public at an information desk, it is not an accident I’m not telling you where I work. ‘Cause, though when Myron’s king I’m sure I won’t be the first against the wall, till then my opinions are of no consequence at all. All the sawed-off shotgun words I might be using today are completely my own (as much as anything can be one’s own) and emphatically do not represent the views of my employer. I am not their fault.

The point of combining our talks into one thing today goes kind of like this: We’re both public librarians devoted to serving our publics. Myron’s been talking about how we can protect our users from malicious entities on the internet (and just to lay my cards on the table my definition of malicious entities includes everyone trying mine and get information out of unsuspecting folks), and I’m going to talk a bit more about how we could expand our users’ knowledge of what they can do with regards to one of the stupid terrible things we’re caught up in today. And by that of course I mean Overdrive ebooks.

So I am aware of very important high-level talks about ebooks and publishing and that’s all cool. In her talk Tuesday morning Christina de Castell mentioned how in a perfect world we’d be sharing DRM-free books with our members, but that’s not the kind of thing they’re really going for. They’re making the current system work more smoothly. I’m talking about how to subvert that system so we can share DRM-free books with our members as individual guerrilla librarians.

my bellyache

How many of you have spent time helping users download ebooks? I’ll do this quick without speaking in maths:

  1. the user needs to download software – Overdrive Media Console for a mobile device or Adobe Digital Editions for a more traditional computer
  2. make sure the software is set up to open the files by default
  3. set up an Adobe ID (which is separate from your library card)
  4. authorize the software
  5. borrow and put things in two virtual spaces called bookshelves
  6. open and read a book.

That’s basically the process.

Now here’s a question: How long does that process take? Not the actual downloading, but the teaching someone how to make this whole system work? Assuming everything is in its right place, that no one forgets their password to their device’s app store, or the time on a laptop isn’t set incorrectly? For me, one-on-one that’s about a 15 minute interaction at the reference desk. Like most public libraries, we also do workshops so we spend an hour with 10-15 people at a time.

At the end of those sessions, those excellent interactions where you’re being the compassionate face of the library helping with a technological challenge, what has the user learned?

it’s all cussed up

I posit that if we go into these interactions just trying to teach our users to jump through technological hoops we’re fucking up as librarians. Because here’s a selection of bad habits and lies we’ve just been complicit in teaching:

  • They’ve learned that reading books on a screen is a complicated process that requires a specific set of steps and proprietary tools.
  • They’ve learned to think of ebooks like physical books with physical limitations.
  • They’ve learned to click through end user license agreements. (though they probably already knew that).
  • They’ve also learned that Overdrive is how they connect with the library.
  • They’ve learned that to use the library you have to have an email address, and give that email address to Adobe, a huge corporation that is not a library and does not have library ideals.

Do you think that is all fucked up? I think it is. Here are some reasons why:

  • Users who do not have a credit card (to associate with app store accounts) cannot download library ebooks. (I see this often with hand-me-down electronic devices, and sometimes when one of those terrible Pandigital tablets goes on sale for more and more people the phone/tablet is their only computing device.)
  • Users who are using a mobile device that was set up by a family member and don’t know the password to actually add an app, cannot download library ebooks.
  • Users with unsupported devices (like a first-gen iPad, or a kindle) cannot download library ebooks.
  • Users who do not want to share their personal information with large corporations they have no real reason to trust cannot download library ebooks.

If we don’t like these lessons, we can’t blame this on satellites or the falling sky, but only on ourselves for not providing alternatives that better fit our values. For me those values are sharing, and like Ivan Coyote said on Monday, honouring that librarian code of silence.

A few weeks ago I started an ebooks workshop and a woman in the group had a Kindle she wanted to use with the library. What do you say to her? In my library branch our circ staff have (quite good) step-by-step how-to documents they give to people when they ask about ebooks based on their device. When they get someone asking about a Kindle they know that technically Kindles don’t work with our Overdrive system, but they also have a resource over at the info desk that might be able to fix things up for them.


It is totally possible to get Overdrive ebooks onto a Kindle. There are a couple of tools you need to do it. Calibre, the open-source ebook management software and ApprenticeAlf’s DeDRM plugins for Calibre. Add these tools to the whole Adobe Digital Editions process and you can set up your users to take control over their ebooks. They still borrow the book through the normal channels, open it up in Adobe Digital Editions, but then drag the file into Calibre and it strips off all the stuff that stops you from modifying the file. Then you can convert it into a mobi file and pop it onto a Kindle. No problem.

Now when I say “strips off the stuff that prevents you from modifying the file” I am referring to Digital Rights Management, or, in the Canadian legal environment a TPM or a digital lock. When you strip that lock off, you’re breaking the law. You’re also stripping off the bits that prevent you from reading the book once you return it, and prevent you from making a copy to share yourself outside the Overdrive environment. I always tell people who want to use their Kindles that it is possible, but the laws say you technically are not supposed to be cussing around with that stuff.

The beautiful thing about stripping the DRM off an Overdrive book is that you’re now addressing a bunch of the problems I talked about earlier. They can use the tools of their choosing (which I realize sounds a little neoliberal of me, so I am sorry) which makes sense because an ebook is just a packaged up html file that people can save to disk read in their browsers. Users don’t need any extra apps or IDs to leak any more info about them, or to join in on the forced technology march of planned obsolescence.

To me that is exactly what librarians need to be doing. Our job is to serve our communities, not to make money for private companies.

possible techniques for libraries

Now you can totally say that my thoughts are misguided and a little naive, and I totally admit there’s a bit of a problem of scalability in the “teach everyone how to strip the DRM from their ebooks” approach. Not everyone wants to add that extra layer to their downloading process. There is a bit of extra software installation involved here, and it’s not something you can do right on an iPad. But I’ve helped people do it.I mean, it’s totally possible to automate the process on people’s individual computers, but many of our ebook users aren’t going to want to do that.

So my proposal is that librarians should be doing this ourselves for our users. We should be stripping DRM from our collections to give people a private (as in privacy, not as in how it’s paid for) option outside the corporate system, where we can be the secret keepers Ivan Coyote talked about in the opening keynote. In my perfect world public libraries would be the biggest seeders of ebook collections through bittorrent, and our catalogue links to ebooks would be direct to DRM-free ebooks in multiple formats.

Before we get there though, there are smaller scale ways to serve our ideals in the ebook-sphere & ideally not get sued to oblivion (though obviously I ain’t promising anything).

  1. First thing: we have to tell our users the truth about why the current system works the way it does. It is not to fulfill our library missions of serving our communities, but to ensure corporate profits. All the steps and privacy liabilities needed to read a cussing ebook are just a side effect of that.In my ebook workshops I explain why even though an ebook is just a file, we pretend you can only have one readable copy of that file out at a time, and that librarians would totally share everything we had with everyone for all time if it were up to us. Maybe that’s not the case for every librarian, but it is for me.
  2. Second thing: showcase alternatives to the corporate system. When talking about ebooks, make sure you’re showing them things like the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, Smashwords,, (though that one really requires an ad-blocker to be sure your eyes don’t bleed).
  3. Third thing: this is a bit more subversive. Every time you download a demo ebook in a workshop or for a user, run it through Calibre and the DeDRM plugin. Save it to a USB stick. Share it locally, maybe using a LibraryBox. Build a little alternative selection of library ebooks to show people how the world could be if librarians were the sharers that we get warm fuzzies thinking we are.

Thank you. I’m sorry for cussing so much.

One thought on “life in a glass house (the ebooks part) #bclc2014

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