Thomas R. Temin
Libraries, as our cover story details, are mostly behind the curve in an important new area: electronic books.
On the market for only a couple of years, these small, electronic text display devices are getting better and cheaper. More and more people want to use them to read library books. As a plus for sight-impaired readers, e-book software easily displays text in large type. E-books share printed books' portability, plus they can be read in the dark thanks to backlit screens.
But technical and distribution models designed for selling electronic texts to consumers and preventing illicit copying are hobbling libraries' use of this new technology. Encrypted copies of texts are tied to individual, serial-numbered e-books which incorporate decryption software in their firmware. You can't copy a text in readable form from one e-book to another or from a computer to an e-book.
Consumers who buy multiple titles store them on e-book manufacturers' Web sites for data transfer, although e-books' memory lets them store several books.
This retail model makes it difficult for libraries to adopt e-books in volume. As one librarian put it, it's as if libraries couldn't rent videotapes without dedicated VCRs accompanying each tape.
Libraries need a way to lend texts on any of dozens or hundreds of e-books'depending on how many devices they can afford'and a way to lend texts to patrons who have their own readers.
Here's how it could work. Libraries would install servers on which to download and store encrypted texts from publishers. The database of titles would be structured so that a file is locked when it is copied to an e-book, just as a single copy of a book is available to only one patron at a time. By using its own public- and private-key infrastructures and making public keys available to patrons with their own e-books, a library could assure publishers that texts wouldn't be copied willy-nilly.
E-book manufacturers could make library versions, with the ability to load PKI software or accept a card token.
In short, libraries need a technical infrastructure that lets them treat electronic texts with the same flexibility as they do printed books. I'd buy an e-book if my local library could do that.
Thomas R. TeminEditorial director