the Kindle lending experience from a patron’s perspective “a wolf in book’s clothing”

Cuneiform tablet on Kindle
[Kindle image by Tim Spalding, thanks Tim!]

I went to a staff meeting on Friday at the local library where I sometimes work. We did some strategic planning, some walking around the building looking at stuff that could be improved, and some “how to download various digital media format” exercises. We use Overdrive via Listen Up Vermont which gives us access to audiobooks and ebooks in EPUB and Kindle formats. I’m pretty okay at this sort of thing so we clicked around and saw how stuff worked and had a few little glitches but basically stuff was okay. I’ve been following the Amazon book lending story through the blogs the past few weeks and I’ve been skeptical but more curious than anything. I don’t have a Kindle but I’ve seen how popular they are and I was curious how this would all work. Well, as some bloggers have pointed out, it sort of doesn’t. Or, rather, it seems to require compromises to our systems and more importantly to our professional values. I’m hoping these issues can be resolved, but honestly if we can’t lend with some modicum of patron privacy, we shouldn’t be lending.

This is all leading up to an email exchange I had with a reader who was wondering the best way to raise concerns with his librarian about the user experience of borrowing a Kindle book from his library to use with the Kindle app on a non-Kindle device. Apparently, while the process to obtain the book wasn’t too difficult, the process to actually get RID of the book once returned [without a lot of pesky "hey maybe you should BUY this" cajoling] was actually fairly difficult. The default settings are, not surprisingly, strongly urging that the patron purchase (not renewal, not some sort of overdue notification) the book that they have just “returned.” I’ll let the patron speak for himself on this process. His name is Dan Smith and this is reprinted with his express permission.
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My first experience at “borrowing a Kindle book from the library” has left me with a bad taste in my mouth. It did not feel like borrowing a book from a library. It felt like a salesperson had sold me a book with a “no-risk free home trial” and was pestering me to buy it at the end of the trial period.

I feel that Amazon’s commercial promotion is excessive, and imposes inappropriately on public library patrons. Would you allow distributor’s rep to stand in the hall, grabbing people on their way to the return slot, saying “Stop! Why RETURN it when you can BUY it instantly for just $12.95?”

Yes, some of the irritations can be sidestepped, and as a savvy user I now know how. But Amazon took advantage of my innocence.

FIrst, the book was all marked up! Dotted underlines here and there on almost every page. It was like taking out a library book and finding someone had gone over it with a highlighter! Amazon allow “library” ebooks to be marked and annotated. Instead of cleaning them up for the next patron, it leaves them in place, and encourages you make your own marks for other people to see. I thought this was just some misguided idea about social networking, but it’s more sinister than that.

I turns out that there is a global setting, “Popular Highlights,” which controls whether you see these marks. But it is on by default! I never knew it was there, because it is only activated when a book has lots of them, and this was the first Kindle book I’ve read that had them. The setting to turn them off is buried, and couldn’t find it right away. Blame me for stupidity, but also blame Amazon, because I don’t think most readers want their books scribbled up, and I think Amazon defaults the setting to “on” to serve their own agenda.

Second, at the end of the loan period, instead of politely announcing that the book would be returned… or offering a renewal… or possibly even sending overdue fines to the library :) … I was instead confronted by intrusive ads, both in my Kindle application and in my regular email, urging me to buy the book from Amazon.

The email made a point of saying “If you purchase ‘The Bed of Procrustes’ or borrow it again from your local library, all of your notes and highlights will be preserved.” So, that’s why they encourage readers to scribble in library books: they want to hold our marginalia up for ransom.

Third, when the book is returned, it does not simply evaporate. The title, jacket and all, remained visible on my Kindle, exactly as if it were still there, but the behind the book cover is nothing but a notice that it has gone back to the library–and a button I can press. Renewal was not an option. The only option shown is to buy it from Amazon.

It looks like a book, but it’s a wolf in book’s clothing.

Fourth, it was hard to clean that ad out of my Kindle application. I could not find any “delete” option. There is an “archive” option, but all it does is move the book into an “archived items” list, where it continued to sit, looking just like the real books I’ve paid for and might want to re-download. Except that if you click on this one, all you get is a choice of “cancel” or “purchase.” Who would want to save that? But neither I nor an Amazon rep was able to find any deletion option within the Kindle application. The rep claims that the actual Kindle device has this capability, but could not explain why the Kindle application doesn’t. I was able to remove it by using a Web browser, logging into my account on the Amazon website, navigating to a “Manage Your Kindle” page, and deleting it via regular Web access. Fine. Now I know. Twenty minutes of my life wasted finding out.

I’ve now gotten a SECOND email solicitation from Amazon urging me to buy this book. How many I more I will receive?

Amazon gets plenty of promotion just by being the only Kindle book source. Their pushy “Don’t RETURN it, BUY it” attitude is out of bounds.

Harper Collins vs. Libraries – battling for the future of lending digital content

There are other where blogs you can read more about this. The upshot is that OverDrive sent out a “State of OverDrive” letter which had some concerning news in it. The Librarian in Black outlines the primary issues. The big deal is that one publisher, Harper Collins, wants to dramatically change its ebook terms such that once you “buy” an ebook to be distributed via overdrive, it can circulate 26 times and then no more. Keep in mind that OverDrive is acceding to these requests, so I think we rightfully have a bone to pick with them as well. BoingBoing gives you some information on why this sort of DRM situation is bad for libraries, bad for people.

There are some other things in the OverDrive note including them starting to be hardasses with libraries about who is in their geographical region, to make sure libraries aren’t, I guess, defrauding OverDrive and giving cards to any old person so that they can rip OverDrive off? The mind boggles. I call this meddling. Bobbi Newman has a good and updated summary of who is saying what about this and this Library Journal article about it is replete with comments.

Now is really the time for us to step up and use our excellent collective buying power to say that this sort of thing is not at all okay. I am sorry if OverDrive is realizing that their revenue model isn’t as terrific as they maybe thought it would be, but this is overstepping what a decent vendor/library model should look like. I just get this weird feeling that in these tough economic times, OverDrive and book publishers, forgetting that libraries are some of their best and most enduring customers, have decided to see how they can get more money for fewer services. At the same time, they’re treating libraries as if we’re the ones responsible for publishers’ revenue problems. Shame on both Harper Collins for being tough guys and OverDrive for giving in to these demands.

Publishers and vendors: we will work with you to find ways to lend digital content. You need to not treat libraries as if they’re contributing to your demise.

two links from the internet and one from my life

  • BOFH stands for Bastard Operator From Hell. This entry is about vampire librarians, or something.
  • Can architects save librarians from the Internet? Slashdot talking about Slate.
  • ListenUpVermont, a project to get participating Vermont libraries together to be able to lend digital audiobooks to their patrons is going live this week. I’d love to say this was my doing but mostly I’ve just consulted with a local non-automated library about how they can make this work for them. This is the result of an informal (possibly formalized now) consortium of Vermont libraries from all over the state lending titles via Overdrive. In just browsing the collection I’m sort of surprised at how many titles can be burned to CD (and transferred to ipods) I was expecting less. Big congrats to Stephanie Chase from the Stowe Free Library for getting this project going.

artificial scarcity of audiobooks

John Miedema, one of the Slow Library posse, has an excellent blog up called Slow Reading. He’s been talking about audiobooks lately and his recent installment concerns the patron experience with digital audiobooks. His library uses Overdrive. He is techie enough to not have problems with the install experience, and for this installment he was content to listen to the audiobook on his computer. But he did have one observation about the availability of this content that is supposed to resemble books.

My selected title was not currently available, so I placed a hold on it. It struck me as odd that I would have to place a hold on a digital resource. After all, making an extra copy of a digital resource does not cost additional money. I know, I’m being simplistic. The rights holders have to impose some kind of exclusivity on the product so that people will pay more to get more copies. Still, it irks. I was emailed a couple days later that my title was available for download. Nice. I was told I could only have it for fourteen days. Well, I may be a slow reader, but I suppose I can listen faster. Last note on exclusivity — if I finish early, I can’t return it before the “return” date to let someone else have it earlier.

Like John, I understand why this is built into the audiobook mechanism but as a library patron and possible librarian working with this type of material, I find it obnoxious. As a patron, you get the book for two weeks whether you need it for that long or not. As the library, every time the item is checked out it becomes “unavailable” for two weeks whether the person reads it in a day or in ten. The content costs a fixed price which has a built-in limitation of how many times it can circulate. This offends my thrifty library sensibilities.

Add to this the confusing problem of non-label releases like Radiohead’s new album — pay what you want to download it, or you can pay $80 for a boxed set — and libraries are left having to make ad hoc choices about collection development issues because of bizarre market forces not because of what they feel should be in their library. Cynics can argue that this is the way libraries have always been with major publishers and book jobbers accounting for a disproportionate amount of library sales and shelf space but I’m curious if these new technological advances are going to make this problem better or worse.

my first audiobook – a day in the life

I had a long day at work today. I went to teeny library number one and noticed their Internet wasn’t working. Apparently it had been down for days, a service guy was on the way. I climbed around under the desk and found that the computer was plugged directly into the wireless modem which was in turn incorrectly plugged in to the cable modem. Bad ports all around. The cable was working fine. Then I went to the basement to mess with the three donated computers. They are from an insurance company. They run Win2K which is not bad in my neck of the woods. I plugged them all in and started them up and was asked for a 25 digit license code. “Hey did these computers come with any software?” I asked. “Just what’s on them.” the librarian told me. I gave her a brief rundown on how to ask the insurance people nicely if they have software licenses for the software they sort of gave us and, if they didn’t, what our legal and non-legal options were. But that isn’t what I wanted to talk about.

What I want to talk about is audiobooks. I was present at the downloading of my other teeny library’s first audiobook today, and helped a patron get his first audiobook. The book was from Overdrive. Our library isn’t a subscriber but this patron had another library card at a place that has Overdrive. I was told when I got in that a patron with an iPod needed help getting an audiobook from this library. I said yeah he should be having some trouble, Overdrive doesn’t support Macs/iPods, or they don’t suppoer it. I launched into an explanation of DRM until I got the impression it wasn’t helping and sat and waited for the kid to show up. Turns out he didn’t have an iPod (as I suspected) and turns out he had checked out an MP3 player from the library that has the Overdrive subscription. They had offered to put the book on the MP3 player for him, but they also told him they didn’t know how to do it and suggested, according to him, that he should do it himself. So he came to the library that I work at. They told him to come back when I was working because no one there knew how to do it either. This is what we did.

  1. restarted the computer in exec mode
  2. went to the library website to assure that the book was “checked out” to the patron.
  3. plugged in the MP3 player
  4. downloaded the OverDrive Media Console
  5. installed the Overdrive Media Console after a false start when the firewall blocked its attempt to download files to install into itself
  6. Ran OverDrive Media Console which told us we needed a newer version of Windows Media Player
  7. Went to the Windows site only to find that the version for our computers is Version 9, not the current version 11.
  8. Fished around for a bit until we found version 9 and downloaded it
  9. Installed WMP version 9.
  10. Ran the OverDrive Media Console which said we need to get a Windows Media Security Upgrade for WMP
  11. Installed the Windows Media Security Upgrade which is required before any DRMed files can be played
  12. Re-ran the OverDrive Media Console
  13. Downloaded the book
  14. Installed the book on the MP3 player.

According to OverDrive’s website, this is about par for the course. Then of course the librarian told me that since I’d done all this with the Centurion Guard not unlocked, I’d have to do it all over again next time.

I appreciate that digital media is really where people are going, and I understand why. However, this was one of the worst user experiences I’ve had to subject a patron to in a library at any time, ever. The patron I was helping was a 13 year old kid who was totally agreeable about having to spend basically an hour getting an audiobook off a website, but I couldn’t look him in the eye and say “Yeah this is what it’s like when you want to read a book over a computer.” I just said “This is how it works when companies make dumb choices about how to sell digital content, and no one is telling them they have to do it any other way.”

on reading: books v audio books

I count audio books on my reading list, same as all other books, as long as they’re unabridged. Two links about audiobooks, the New York Times writes in defense of audiobooks in Loud, Proud, Unabridged: It Is Too Reading! while audible.com has been strutting around with this “edgy” ad campaign at dontread.org, while I applaud their chutzpah (and their printable DON’T READ posters) I’m always a little squicked out when a for-profit entity sells me stuff through a .org domain.

Speaking of audiocontent, take a listen to this recording of Ranganathan talking about Dewey from a 1964 recording (it’s noisy at the beginning, stick with it)

are audiobooks accessible? A TAP report.

Accessibility Trial of the Downloadable Digital Audio Book Service from netLibrary and Recorded Books LLC. At least twelve libraries providing content to the print impaired participated in this project. Upshot? Responses vary, though mejor hurdles mentioned include interacting with the website, dealing with DRM and usability of the Windows Media Player.

The volunteers who participated in this two-month trial had a wide variety of experiences and reactions to those experiences. Some volunteers thought this was the best digital audio book system they had ever tried…. Many of the volunteer testers noted that the quality of the texts, the narration, and the sound was very high.

Others thought the overall system was barely functional and marginally accessible. The content website, the digital rights management system, and Microsoft’s Windows Media Player software presented substantial accessibility challenges for a large portion of the group of volunteer testers.

audiobooks + OPACs and interface design

Remember when your library makes a choice to go with audiobooks from a vendor that supports one platform only, usually PC, you’re not just reflecting the user demographics, you’re also helping create them. What’s not to like about a library service that you can’t use inside the library?